HAMPTON, Ga. -- This green-white-checkered was shaping up as a finish where it was a shame that somebody had to lose between Martin Truex Jr. and Jeff Gordon. But then both of them lost, with mistakes.
And Denny Hamlin beat them squarely at the end of Sunday night's AdvoCare 500, and clinched at least a tie for top seed in the Chase with his fourth win this season and his second straight.
Long-suffering Truex, who has been strong enough this year to be fifth in the standings but is winless, was running away in the late laps, easily holding off Gordon's struggle to catch him. Then a caution came out with five laps left, and it appeared the two would duel for the feel-good win.
But a brilliant pit stop got Hamlin out of the pits first, with Truex second and Gordon third. Truex spun his tires on the restart while Gordon pushed Hamlin out front, and Gordon's mistake -- not shoving Hamlin up the racetrack when he could have -- came only moments later.
"I guess I'm just getting soft in my old age," Gordon fumed afterward. "I'm too nice. Fifteen years ago I would have moved him right up the racetrack. I don't know why I didn't do that."
Bottom line, Gordon figured, was that "I should have just run into the back of him going into [Turn] 3 and moved him up the racetrack and we'd be sitting in Victory Lane right now. This Chase is too important to be in for me not to make a move like that. I wouldn't have wanted to wreck him, but I would like to have that one over again."
On the final dash, Hamlin conceded, "I drove in the corner way beyond my talent level those last couple of laps, and it just shot me up the racetrack and got me out of line and gave him the opportunity. But as far as him getting into me, I knew how desperate he was, but I knew that we could not let him win. It was critical for our team to not let Jeff get a win."
As it stands, the fight for the 12th and final Chase berth next week at Richmond will be pretty much a duel between Gordon, 13th in points, and Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who is 12th. Gordon and Busch have one win each.
And Hamlin figured years of racing Gordon clean had earned him a break.
"I haven't moved him out of the way for a win," Hamlin said. "We've raced each other with respect my entire career. Maybe if it's somebody else, he doesn't think twice and he moves 'em out of the way. But I think I've earned that respect that I should have got on that last lap, and he gave it to me."
A badly dejected Truex could utter only a partial sentence -- "Just spun the tires" -- about the restart to ESPN pit reporters afterward. "I just smoked the tires like a dragster. So" -- and here he breathed a sigh -- "just wasn't meant to be, I guess."
Truex's bad restart got him shuffled back so that he finished fourth, behind Brad Keselowski.
"I'm 70 percent happy for us and 30 percent sad for Martin and Michael [Waltrip, Truex's team owner] and those guys," Hamlin said. "They're teammates of ours. Toyota teammates."
Pit crew won me the race, and that's what a championship team is all about, having all those pieces put together. And this year I think we have it all.
”-- Denny Hamlin
Hamlin's back-to-back wins, here and at Bristol last week, have catapulted him from middle seeding to the top in the Chase. His worst possible scenario now is for one of the three drivers with three wins, Jimmie Johnson, Keselowski and Tony Stewart, to get a fourth win and tie for top seed in next week's regular-season finale at Richmond.
Hamlin had been winless in Cup competition at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and so "This was one I wanted real bad," he said. "Last week was a big one, no doubt about it. But I've been really good here at Atlanta the last few years and not won."
A typically free-spirited Keselowski sloughed off Hamlin's lead in the seeding as merely "just one of those things you can be proud of. I think when the Chase gets going, those bonus points are nice, but they certainly don't guarantee anything
"So at the end of the day, you still have to perform in the Chase," Keselowski said, and added by way of early mind games, "and I'm sure Denny knows that."
Hamlin understood precisely, and pointed out that what won for him Saturday night is an early indicator of what just might win him his first Cup championship.
"Pit crew," Hamlin said. "Pit crew won me the race, and that's what a championship team is all about, having all those pieces put together.
"And this year I think we have it all."