Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are quickly turning the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship into their own private duel.
A two-tire stop for Johnson paid off with a victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, making the Chase a virtual dead heat at the top between the reigning champion and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and friend.
Johnson and Gordon, who came into the Pep Boys Auto 500 separated by 53 points, both struggled with the handling on their Chevrolets most of the day. But, thanks to a wild finish, they wound up first and seventh, leaving four-time champion Gordon with a nine-point lead with three of the 10 Chase races remaining.
“I just think it’s going to be a fight to the end,” Johnson said. “We took a good bite out of Jeff’s points lead today and it’s going to come down to a position or two in the next three.
“Now, I feel very good about where we are in the points. We can go lead laps, we can try to lead the most laps and really race for this championship over the next three races. I’m very excited about that.”
With all the leaders concerned about running out of gas, rookie Johnny Sauter’s blown tire brought out the 11th of a track record 12 caution flags on the 318th of a scheduled 325 laps on the 1.5-mile suburban Atlanta oval.
Denny Hamlin, who had been running sixth, was the only leader who stayed on track, taking the lead. The others pitted and Johnson jumped from fifth to second as crew chief Chad Knaus made a late decision to change only two tires.
The race restarted on lap 323, but Hamlin ran out of gas on the restart and cars began dodging everywhere to try to miss him and each other. Martin Truex Jr., who had one of the best cars all day, wound up slamming into the rear of Hamlin and the caution waved again.
That left Johnson, who barely dodged Hamlin’s slow car, in the lead, with Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind and set up a two-lap overtime.
The race resumed on lap 328 and, before the leaders got through the first turn, something snapped in the rear of Earnhardt’s car, sending him spinning into the wall. He collected Jamie McMurray, who had been running fifth, and the race ended under yellow with Johnson picking up his eighth win of the season and second in a row.
“Today wasn’t the best day for our car,” said Johnson, who swept both Atlanta races this season. “Circumstances at the end really worked out for us. When I left pit road and there were five or six cars behind us and two tires, I knew we were probably in great shape.”
Knaus, who has been Johnson’s crew chief for his entire Cup career, said going with two tires at the end was an easy decision to make.
“When that caution came out, we knew we didn’t have a car capable of winning the race,” Knaus said. “But, usually late in the race when cautions do come out, cautions breed cautions so track position was going to be important.
“We were fortunate enough to see some guys taking two tires and we kind of called an audible right there and went with two tires.”
Gordon, who saw his lead almost disappear, said the pressure is on even more heading into next Sunday’s race at Texas.
“I feel like we’ve got the team and the equipment to do it, but those guys are tough and they’re showing it every weekend,” Gordon said. “All I’m focusing right now is trying not to have the bad day and, for a while, it looked like today was going to be the bad day.
“We struggled there for a while and, to come back and finish seventh, it was a great day, even though Jimmie won.”
Johnson said he and team owner Rick Hendrick will donate their $349,561 in winnings from Sunday’s race to the American Red Cross for the wildfire relief effort in his native California, along with matching donations promised by several other NASCAR organizations.
In Victory Lane, the winner, who led only the final eight laps, said he was amazed to be there, considering how the day had gone.
“We were able to capitalize on a great pit call, but we need to make the most of every race because I know it’s going to be a shootout to the end.”
With the melee behind Hamlin on the penultimate restart and the Earnhardt-McMurray crash at the end, the finishing order was shuffled big time.
Edwards, who had not been a factor most of the race, wound up second and kept alive his slim hopes of a championship. He came into the race fifth, 285 points behind Gordon and heads for Texas fourth, 261 back.
It was a good finish to a difficult week for Edwards, who was embroiled in controversy after a confrontation with Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth nearly came to blows after the previous week’s race at Martinsville.
Edwards was followed across the finish line by Reed Sorenson, Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, who remained third in the 12-man Chase, but still trails Gordon by 111 points, four less than when the race began.
Truex and Kyle Busch were dominant most of the way, with Truex leading a race-high 135 laps and Busch out front for 98. But the late crash relegated Truex 31st, while Busch lost the lead and fell out of contention when his jackman messed up on his final pit stop. He then got caught up in Hamlin’s accident, spun through the infield grass and wound up 17th.