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Quick return from pit road helps Hamlin earn fourth win of season

The SportsXchange

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Denny Hamlin became the first four-time winner on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit this season, winning Sunday night's AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

The race was the penultimate event in the 26-race NASCAR Sprint Cup regular season.

Hamlin led a race-high 107 laps, and he outdueled Martin Truex Jr. to put the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota into victory lane for the second consecutive race. The Chesterfield, Va., driver earned his 21st career victory in 248 Sprint Cup starts as he prevailed during a green-white-checkered finish.

Truex had passed Hamlin with 43 laps to go and appeared headed to an easy victory when Jamie McMurray brought out a caution on Lap 320 of the scheduled 325-lap race, setting up the green-white-checkered ending.

Under the caution, all the leaders pitted, and Hamlin won the race off pit road. On the restart, Hamlin broke clear to win over Jeff Gordon, Brad Keselowski, Truex and Kevin Harvick.

"Our car faded a little bit, but our pit crew won us the race," Hamlin said. "That's what championships are all about."

With the Chase for the Sprint Cup just two weeks away, Hamlin is peaking at exactly the right time as he pursues his first series championship after finishing second in 2010.

"I don't have to say anything," Hamlin said. "Our wins say it all."

The race for the final wild-card spot in the Chase will continue to the final race of the regular season at Richmond International Raceway on Saturday night. Kasey Kahne has all but clinched the first wild card on the basis of his two victories.

Gordon was the best finisher at Atlanta among the five wild-card contenders who have one victory each. However, the four-time Cup champion wished he had roughed up Hamlin on the final lap.

"I'm just mad at myself right now," Gordon said. "I guess I'm just getting soft in my old age. I'm too nice. Fifteen years ago, I would have moved him (Hamlin) up the race track."

Heading into Richmond, Kyle Busch leads the battle for the second wild-card slot, by 12 points over Gordon. Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose and Joey Logano are still technically in contention as well, although their odds are not good.

Carl Edwards, the runner-up in last year's championship race, lost an engine on Lap 263, and his chances of making the Chase are virtually nil.

"That's just how our season has been going, and I don't know what the reason is," Edwards said. "We treat these engines like gold, and we hardly ever have engine troubles."

Three-time and defending NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart started from the pole Sunday.

It was just the 14th career pole for Stewart in 489 Sprint Cup starts and the first this year for the driver and his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet.

Stewart led briefly after the drop of the green flag, but by Lap 17, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas of Busch and Hamlin were 1-2. Once in clean air, the two quickly ran away from the field, dominating the first half of the race.

At Lap 100, Hamlin led Busch, Harvick, Jimmie Johnson and Gordon. Notables Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kahne were all a lap down by that point.

By Lap 110, Harvick was up to second, some 2.8 seconds behind Hamlin, who continued to run away from the field, with teammate Busch back in third. So fast was Hamlin that by Lap 125, there were just 16 cars still on the lead lap.

After a debris caution, Harvick took his first lead of the night on the restart on Lap 135, with Hamlin a close second.

At the halfway point of the 325-lap race, the order was Harvick by 2.901 seconds over Hamlin, Truex, Busch and Sam Hornish Jr.

NOTES: Stewart-Haas Racing confirmed Sunday that Office Depot will not return as a sponsor of Tony Stewart's No. 14 Chevrolet. Office Depot has been a co-sponsor of the 14 since SHR was formed in 2009. ... NASCAR Nationwide Series points leader Elliott Sadler is expected to leave Richard Childress Racing at the end of the year to move to Joe Gibbs Racing, where he'll drive one of the team's Nationwide entries. ... Despite a 15th-place finish, Greg Biffle held onto the Sprint Cup lead by eight points over Earnhardt, who finished seventh. ... Danica Patrick finished 29th, six laps down.
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