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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)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Redds Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Redds Ford, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Matt Sullivan/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Redds Ford, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #2 Redds Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Crew chief Chad Knaus inspects the car of Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, after a crash during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, and Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, lead the field at the start of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe`s Chevrolet, crashes in the early part of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV Sales 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 13, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Hertz Ford, celebrates in Victory Lane after winning during the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 12, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Jeff Zelevansky/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Hertz Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 12, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Hertz Ford, takes the chequered flag to win the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 12, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire.  (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Brad Keselowski, driver of the #22 Hertz Ford, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Nationwide Series Sta-Green 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on July 12, 2014 in Loudon, New Hampshire. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski in the garage at Martinsville Speedway (Photo Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Darrell Wallace Jr., driver of the #54 ToyotaCare Toyota, and Erik Jones, driver of the #51 ToyotaCare Toyota, lead the field during a restart of the American Ethanol 200 at Iowa Speedway on July 11, 2014 in Newton, Iowa. (Photo Credit: Rainier Ehrhardt/NASCAR via Getty Images)
Erik Jones, driver of the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series car (Photo Credit: NASCAR)
Erik Jones, driver of the #51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Camping World Truck Series car (Photo Credit: NASCAR)

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