Last week at Bristol, Denny Hamlin put himself in the picture to be at the top of the Sprint Cup Series points standings when the Chase begins. Sunday night at Atlanta, thanks to Jamie McMurray's right front tire and some quick work by his pit crew, Hamlin made sure that he will be at the top of the standings after next Saturday night's race at Richmond.
After McMurray blew a right front tire with six laps to go in Sunday night's race at Atlanta, Hamlin's pit crew got him off pit road first and Hamlin held off a hard charging Jeff Gordon to win his second straight Sprint Cup Series race and his fourth in 2012, the most of any driver in the Cup Series.
Before the caution, it was Martin Truex Jr. that was cruising towards victory lane. Truex had gotten around Hamlin with 44 laps to go and darted away, at one point building a near four-second lead with approximately 20 laps to go over Gordon, who had run down Hamlin for second place. The only drama was if Truex — who reportedly had less than a lap of gas extra in his fuel tank — would make it to the end with fuel in the engine.
But when McMurray's tire exploded just a few cars ahead of Truex on the frontstretch, that storyline went away and was replaced by a new one: which pit crew could get four tires bolted on the fastest? The answer to that question was Hamlin's, as he beat Truex off pit road by less than a car length.
On the restart, Truex, in the outside line, spun the tires and bottled up the drivers behind him. That opened the door for Gordon, who stayed in Hamlin's tire tracks as the two drivers separated themselves from the field. Gordon was running a slightly higher line than Hamlin and thanks to a surge of momentum down the backstretch on the final lap, took a shot at the lead in turns three and four on the final lap. He pulled up to Hamlin's quarterpanel, but he had too much speed. The car didn't stick, and Gordon had to let off the throttle exiting the corner.
Was it a Chase deciding move? Potentially. Gordon was, and still is, fighting for his Chase chances. Had he strategically used his fender to move Hamlin up the track — a possibility he brought up after the race — he's got an all-important second win towards his Wild Card chances. Instead, Gordon is still on the outside looking in, and Hamlin is guaranteed at least a share of the points lead.
"You wish you could bottle up and take these wins and put them in the Chase," Hamlin said, "They are worth something. They're worth three points (each). And this last week we've gained six points to the field in the Chase. That's six spots, that's hard to come by here and there and these guys know more than anything what one point matters when it comes to the Chase."
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