Jimmie Johnson survived a wild ending in Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway to emerge with his second straight victory and close to within nine points of standings leader and teammate Jeff Gordon with three races remaining.
Johnson grabbed the lead on lap 322 of the scheduled 325-lap event when leader Denny Hamlin faltered on the restart following the 12th caution flag. During that four-lap caution period, Hamlin didn't pit, but Johnson did and was one of five drivers who took two tires. When they lined up for the restart, Johnson was second. It was then that he noticed Hamlin weaving his Chevrolet as the field exited turn four for the single-file restart. Hamlin then moved down, leaving the outside lane open as they approached the green flag. When the flagman waved the green flag, Hamlin's car stalled. Johnson saw the cars stacking up behind him, swerved to the outside and into the lead. The melee that erupted behind him eliminated Martin Truex Jr., who led the most laps, setting the pace on five occasions for 135 laps, and took Hamlin and Kyle Busch from victory contention.
"We had a good car today and as Chad [Knaus, crew chief] pointed out, probably not the fastest, but his pit call at the end [for two tires] was really what put us in contention to win the race," said Johnson, who has now swept three tracks this season and posted back-to-back victories on three occasions this year.
"I feel really good about where we are in the points and we can go lead laps, we can try to lead the most laps, and really race for this championship over the next three events."
The race's 13th caution period sent the event on the 1.54-mile track into a green-white-checker finish that, to Carl Edwards' dismay, never materialized. Shortly after the front-runners received the white flag, the left-rear wheel flew off Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s third-place Chevrolet. Earnhardt Jr. careened up the track, slammed into the second-turn wall and was then hit by Jamie McMurray, who was left with nowhere to go. The field was frozen and Edwards had to settle for second in the 329-lap race.
"I would have loved to have had a shot (at Jimmie Johnson)," said Edwards, who moved into fourth in the standings. "I hate to see a race end like that. The 8 car [Earnhardt Jr.] and the 48 [Johnson] were both really fast. We were gonna be pretty good on two tires and Matt (Kenseth) had four tires, so it was gonna be one heck of a finish."
Rounding out the top five, respectively, were Peachtree City, Ga. native Reed Sorenson, Kenseth and Jeff Burton.
Johnson, who donated his winnings to the Southern California Wildfire Relief Fund, averaged 135.26 mph in the race that had 19 lead changes among 11 drivers and was slowed by a record 14 caution flags for 55 laps. The old track record for caution flags was 11, which was set in 1968 and then equaled in the 1993 fall race.
With three races remaining, Hendrick Motorsports appears to be the owner of this year's NEXTEL Cup championship with the only question being which driver will own the title - Johnson or Gordon. Clint Bowyer is third, 111 points behind Gordon.
In Sunday's race, seven of the Chase drivers posted top-10 finishes. In addition to those who recorded top-five finishes, Bowyer placed sixth, Gordon seventh and Kurt Busch eighth. Kevin Harvick took 15th, Kyle Busch 20th, Hamlin 24th, Tony Stewart 30th and Truex 31st.