Outrunning Jeff Gordon on a two-lap dash to the finish in Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Hamlin scored his second straight NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, his series-best fourth of the season and the 21st of his career.
Hamlin also preserved Busch’s status as the second provisional wild card in the Chase for the Sprint Cup by keeping Gordon out of Victory Lane.
Hamlin beat Gordon to the finish line by .378 seconds after a caution spoiled a probable victory for Martin Truex Jr., who was leading by two seconds when Jamie McMurray wrecked on the frontstretch on Lap 320 of 327.
Brad Keselowski ran third, followed by Truex and Kevin Harvick.
Matt Kenseth (ninth Sunday), Truex, Keselowski, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer (27th) and Harvick all clinched top-10 spots in the Chase, joining series leader Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. Defending Cup champion and pole-sitter Tony Stewart fought an ill-handling car all night and finished 22nd but clinched at least a wild-card spot.
“This is one I wanted real bad,” Hamlin said. “Last week was a big one (at Bristol) — no doubt about it — but I’ve been really good here the last few years and not won.”
Hamlin’s crew got him off pit road in the lead when all the contending cars stopped under the final caution, which extended the race two laps past its scheduled lap count of 325.
“The pit crew won me the race,” Hamlin said. “That’s what a championship team is all about, to have all the pieces of the puzzle put together, and this year I think we have it all.”
Gordon, who celebrated his 41st birthday last month, allowed that he must be getting soft in his old age.
“He (Hamlin) made a mistake off of (Turn) 2 (after the final restart), and I got a run on him, and I made a bad decision,” Gordon said. “All night I was able to get to guys’ quarter panels and get to the outside and stay there. I should have just run into the back of him going into (Turn) 3 and moved him up the race track.
“We’d be sitting in Victory lane right now counting another win. This Chase is too important to be in it for me not to make a move like that. I wouldn’t have wanted to wreck him, but I would have liked to have that one over again.”
Gordon trails Busch by 12 points with one race left before the Chase field is set next Saturday night at Richmond. A race win there would guarantee either driver a wild-card berth.
After the midpoint of the race, Harvick and Hamlin established themselves as the class of the field, running away from the pack after a restart on Lap 135. Hamlin’s team opted to stretch fuel mileage, intending to finish the race on one more stop after coming to pit road under green on Lap 221.
Harvick had pitted for fuel and four tires on Lap 216 and would have needed two more stops to make it to the end of the race. The tradeoff was that the extra five laps on new tires had given Harvick an 8.4-second lead over Hamlin after the cycle of stops.
Hamlin, however, trimmed a second per lap from Harvick’s advantage and had pulled up to the bumper of the No. 29 Chevrolet when caution for Juan Pablo Montoya’s brush with the outside wall on Lap 241 made all the fuel calculations moot.
Hamlin beat Harvick off pit road under the yellow and held the top spot after a restart on Lap 248. Truex moved past Harvick into the second position one lap later and kept Hamlin in his sights during the ensuing green flag run.
Running a higher line than Hamlin, Truex was moments away from taking the lead when the engine in Carl Edwards’ No. 99 Ford blew on Lap 264, causing the fourth caution of the night. The early end to Edwards’ night forces last year’s Chase runner-up, who finished 36th, to win next Saturday at Richmond to have even a remote chance at a wild-card spot in the Chase.
Pit stops on Lap 266 put fuel strategy back into play. Hamlin, for instance, left pit road needing to save four laps worth of fuel to get to the checkered flag. On the restart on Lap 270, though, the entire tenor of the race changed when Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman and Sam Hornish Jr. wrecked on the backstretch.
His car destroyed, Newman was credited with a 35th-place finish. His only realistic avenue into the Chase is a victory at Richmond.