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Hamlin's fourth thwarts Gordon's hopes

Denny Hamlin managed to stay ahead of Jeff Gordon at the end of the night time Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, which may result in the four-time champ missing the Chase.
The stakes couldn't have been higher as the green flag came out for the start of the AdvoCare 500 Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday evening. As the penultimate race before the Chase cut-off, it's virtually the last chance for some of those on the bubble to make it into the all-important title play-offs.

Reigning Cup champion Tony Stewart's place in the Chase was reasonably secure even though he was bumping along in second place, and he was starting from pole position. However, his place at front was soon taken by Jeff Gordon, one of the contenders most desperately seeking admission into the Chase club via a "most wins" wild card: a second 2012 win here would likely seal it for him. As it would for Kyle Busch, who took the lead from Gordon on lap 16. Battle lines were being drawn early.

Kasey Kahne was another driver seeking the wildcard, and he had the advantage of already having two wins so far in 2012. Even so, he was off the pace and the concern with which his crew checked under the car during the first round of pit stops that followed an engine blow-up for Aric Almirola on lap 39 spoke volumes of just how anxious everyone not already locked into the Chase was taking the Atlanta race.

Busch remained in front for the next 40 laps of the race ahead of Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, and reclaimed the lead after the next round of green flag pit stops. But his early pace was already waning as the cool of night changed the handling of the cars, and when Busch bobbled on lap 91 Hamlin took over for an extended run of his own at the front - the very first lap of which was marked by putting polesitter Tony Stewart a lap down.

Hamlin pulled out a three second lead over a fierce extended battle for second place between old 'friends' Busch and Harvick which Harvick finally won on lap 109. That order remained after the next round of pit stops, after which there was a brief debris caution on lap 130.

Harvick got the jump on both Joe Gibbs Racing cars and took the lead at the restart, the start of a long run in charge that would only be broken up briefly by cycles of pit stops over the course of the next 100 laps. He didn't quite have the same level of domination that he'd displayed in the previous night's Nationwide Series race, but it was looking pretty good all the same.

Other cars were starting to find their groove as well and make a push toward the front: Matt Kenseth and Martin Truex Jr. pushed into the top five, and Carl Edwards - another star name looking in high danger of failing to make the Chase after finishing as runner-up to Stewart in 2011 - was also pressing hard during the extended period of green flag running.

That came to an end on lap 241 when Juan Montoya had an uncomfortable brush with the wall, and Hamlin reclaimed the lead from Harvick on pit road for the restart with the second row formed by Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. It was Truex who got the best start, falling into second behind Hamlin, but it was a brief green flag run this time with the yellows out again on lap 264.

David Gilliland had been very slow on the backstretch, but the actual cause of the caution was poor Carl Edwards whose engine had destroyed itself over the course of the previous ten laps and which finally expired just as Truex had been making a move on Hamlin for the lead.




Related Pictures

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Ryan Newman, driver of the #39 Army Medicine Chevrolet, drives as his car is engulfed in flames during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 2, 2012 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Toyota, performs a burnout in celebration of winning during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 2, 2012 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Wesley Hitt/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 Sport Clips Toyota, races ahead of Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, and Kevin Harvick, driver of the #29 Rheem Chevrolet, during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on September 2, 2012 in Hampton, Georgia. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Kasey Kahne, driver of the #5 Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS, races to an eighth place finish with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS who finished in second place Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Chase Elliott, driver of the #24 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet SS, stops in his pit on his way to a fifth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. Elliott takes over the #24 car from retired driver Jeff Gordon.  (Photo by Ashley R Dickerson for Chevy Racing)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS, races to a fourth place finish Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo by Alan Marler for Chevy Racing)
Dale Earnhardt, Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet SS, finishes in second place Saturday night, April 9, 2016 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Brian Cleary for Chevy Racing)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 as Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage (L) and John Godwin of Duck Commander (R) look on at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, celebrates winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Stanley Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 9, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Boats Toyota, practices for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 7, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Stanley Toyota, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for the pole position for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Carl Edwards, driver of the #19 Stanley Toyota, poses with the Coors Light Pole Award after qualifying for the pole position for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on April 8, 2016 in Fort Worth, Texas.  (Photo Credit: Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M`s 75th Anniversary Toyota, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway on April 3, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Photo by Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images)

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