Until the final caution flew with six laps to go, it looked like Martin Truex Jr was going to take home the win. After the pit stops during that caution, Denny Hamlin had become the new leader after beating Truex Jr off pit road. This is Hamlin’s fourth victory of the season and his second straight. After a rough early summer, Hamlin found his way back to victory lane in Bristol last week and again in Atlanta Sunday Night.
With only one race until the Chase begins, Hamlin is on a hot streak and he could be on that hot streak all the way to Homestead-Miami. Hamlin is proving he will be a fierce competitor for the title come Chase time.
Pole-sitter Tony Stewart led the first ten laps before being passed by wild card contender Jeff Gordon for the lead. Gordon couldn’t hold the lead long and another wild card contender Kyle Busch took the lead on lap 16. Hamlin took the lead for the first time on lap 35 when he passed his teammate Kyle Busch.
The first caution came out on lap 39 when Aric Almirola had smoke coming out the rear of his car and he left fluid on the track. When the leaders pitted under the caution, Kyle Busch beat Hamlin off pit road to take the lead once again. After Busch led a good amount of laps, Hamlin regained the lead on lap 81.
The first round of green-flag pit stops began on lap 83 and Kyle Busch regained the lead after his stop on pit road. Swapping of the lead between Kyle Busch and Hamlin continued until Hamlin passed Busch on lap 89.
The second caution came out on lap 130 for debris on the backstretch. On the restart, Kevin Harvick passed Hamlin and took the lead for the first time of the night.
On lap 218 more green-flag pit stops began.
Juan Pablo Montoya brought out the caution with 84 laps to go when he got into the turn three wall. Hamlin was back to the lead on the restart.
With 61 laps to go, wild card contender Carl Edwards saw his chances of making the Chase blow out the back of his car when his engine let go. This is Edwards first DNF – Did Not Finish – since October 2009. Edwards needs a miracle to make the Chase, however, there’s a slight chance to get in, if he wins next week at Richmond – depending on where the other wild card competitors finish. Edwards said after the incident that “(We’re) going to Richmond where anything can happen.”
On the restart the yellow flag came out quickly when five-time champion Jimmie Johnson was turned into the backstretch wall. Johnson was squeezing Sam Hornish Jr up into Ryan Newman and when Johnson tried to slide up in front of Hornish Jr, Johnson got turned into the wall.
The incident also collected wild card contender Ryan Newman who had no place to go. This is Newman’s second straight week with a wreck after getting hit from behind and turned into the wall last week at Bristol. Newman’s hopes of making the Chase are also slim, but if Newman wins next week at Richmond, he can make the Chase.
With 49 laps to go, Martin Truex Jr took the lead from Denny Hamlin. Truex Jr is looking for his first Sprint Cup win since Dover in 2007. If the race stayed green to the end, Truex Jr would be the one in victory lane. But with six laps to go, Jamie McMurray blew a tire and hit the frontstretch wall to bring out a caution. This caution changed everything, with the leaders going to pit road, there will be a green-white-checker finish.
Hamlin beat Truex Jr off pit road to take the lead. Truex Jr spun his tires on the restart and he couldn’t keep up with Hamlin. Jeff Gordon took over second place and was right behind Hamlin. Gordon needs a win to get the second wild card spot.
After taking the white flag, Gordon was still right on Hamlin’s bumper. Going into turn three Gordon tried to go low, but Hamlin was too strong on the outside and crossed the finish line first for the second straight week. Gordon said after the race that “I should of run into the back of him going into (turn) three.”
Hamlin celebrated in Atlanta Motor Speedway’s victory lane for the first time. After the race, Hamlin said that his “Pit crew won me the race.” Hamlin also said that going into the Chase, ”Wins are all that matters.” Hamlin now has the most wins of the season and he is looking at the top spot in the Chase.
The wild card standings are unchanged since no wild card contender won the race. Kasey Kahne still has the first wild card spot and Kyle Busch still has the second.
After Atlanta, all the current drivers in the top-ten will get into the Chase competition. However, at this point, only eight will get to use their wins as bonus points going into the Chase – Harvick and Truex Jr have zero wins for the season.
Tony Stewart, currently in tenth-place, will be in the Chase one way or another. If Stewart runs well next week, he will get in as the driver tenth in points and get to use those three wins as bonus points and a better staring position when the Chase begins at Chicagoland. But if Stewart has a bad week and falls out of the tenth position in points, he will have the first wild card entry and will not get bonus points for his three wins – he would start the chase in 11th place.
Drivers Marcos Ambrose, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon will need to win at Richmond to get into the Chase as the #2 wild card entry. A wild week is in store at Richmond next Saturday Night and with so many different scenarios of how this and that driver can get into the Chase, it’ll be a crazy night.
Results and Point Standings via NASCAR.com