Jeff Gordon was kicking himself for letting a desperately needed win slip away, while Martin Truex Jr. couldn't help but wonder just what it will take to get back to victory lane.
Hamlin took advantage of a fortuitous yellow flag with three laps to go, beating Truex off pit road and fending off Gordon on the final lap in a green-white-checkered finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
"We have a lot of momentum now," Hamlin said. "I will try to take advantage of it."
After a largely uneventful race, all sorts of subplots developed on the harried dash to the finish.
Hamlin knew a series-leading fourth win of the season would put him in position to top the standings when the 12-driver Chase begins after next weekend's race at Richmond. Also on his mind was keeping Gordon from getting to the line first, which would have given his playoff hopes a big boost — at the expense of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, Hamlin's teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing.
"I'm going to do whatever it takes to get as many (Gibbs) cars in there because it helps me," Hamlin said. "We need Kyle in there, we need Joey in there, and if Jeff won that race, it was going to be all over. We had to do what we had to do."
Gordon, it turned out, didn't do what he needed to do.
The four-time Cup champion was positioned to pull off a pass on Hamlin going through turns three and four, but he got too tentative making his move on the leader. Instead of getting right on his quarter-panel, which might have caused Hamlin's car to wobble, Gordon went in with too much speed and drifted up near the wall going through the high-banked turn, allowing Hamlin to pull away.
Now, Gordon will almost surely have to win at Richmond to claim a wild card.
"I would like to have that one over again," Gordon said. "I guess I'm getting soft in my old age."
Truex appeared to be positioned for his first win since 2007 until Jamie McMurray smashed into the wall on the front straightaway, bringing out a caution with three laps to go. The leaders went to pit road, and Hamlin's crew got him back on the track first, just ahead of Truex.
While Truex struggled to get up to speed on the restart, Hamlin pulled away with Gordon right on his bumper. It was still that way when the checkered flag came out.
"I wanted this one real bad," Hamlin said. "The car faded a little bit, but the pit crew won me that race. That's what a championship team is all about. This year, I think we have it all."
Brad Keselowski finished third, while Truex faded to fourth. He had struggled all night on restarts, usually needing about five laps to get up to speed. In a desperate bid to stay with Hamlin, he spun his tires when the green flag waved.
"I sure didn't want to see that caution," said Truex, who has gone 192 races since his only Cup win at Dover five years ago. "We had it covered. Such is life. That seems to be my kind of luck when we're leading."
Along with Hamlin, eight other drivers have locked up their spot in the Chase based on points: Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Truex, Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. Defending Cup champion Tony Stewart, who has three wins this season, is assured of at least a wild card.
Kasey Kahne, with two wins, has all but locked up a spot in the playoff. That leaves a bunch of big-name drivers who know, in all likelihood, they must win at Richmond to have a shot at getting into the Chase — including Gordon, Busch and last year's runner-up, Carl Edwards.
It was another tough night for Edwards, who has yet to win a race this season after nearly capturing the title in 2011. The No. 99 car started smoking on lap 264, apparently from a blown piston. He was done for the night, a devastating blow to his chances.
Edwards lost last year's championship to Stewart on a tiebreaker in the final race of the season. Now, he absolutely must win at Richmond — and even that may not be enough to get him into the playoff.
"I'm not a real religious person, but it's like somebody's trying to reach me a lesson," Edwards said. "We're going to Richmond, where anything can happen. Hopefully, whatever happens involves us winning the race and getting in the Chase."
The race was a snoozer much of the night, the field spreading out all over the 1.54-mile tri-oval, with a handful of drivers running up front while everyone else just struggled to stay on the lead lap. Busch dominated early on, leading a total of 66 laps. Then it was Harvick's turn to set the pace, leading the field for 101 laps. Hamlin wound up leading the most laps, 105, but Truex appeared to have the strongest car at the end — until that final caution came out.
"It just wasn't meant to be, I guess," said Truex, who led 40 laps.
The first big wreck occurred on lap 269, when Sam Hornish Jr. and Ryan Newman got pinched by Johnson on the backstretch after a restart. Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet spun head-first into the wall, leaving Newman with nowhere to go. They were both damaged beyond repair, while Hornish managed to keep going in his banged-up car.
"It looks like the 48 just ran everybody out of room," said Newman, another driver who knows he must win at Richmond to have any shot at getting into the Chase.
That's not a concern for Hamlin.
He's already got his sights on the bigger prize — his first Sprint Cup title.
"I don't have to say anything," Hamlin said. "Wins are all that matters."
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