HAMPTON, Ga. — Six more drivers punched their tickets into the Chase for the Championship at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday night. That leaves only two final spots left to be filled among six contenders.
Jeff Gordon could have separated himself from the others during the final lap of the AdvoCare 500, but his charge on race leader Denny Hamlin slipped wide in the fourth turn. He left the track knowing he might not get a better opportunity, especially with only one race remaining in NASCAR’s regular season.
“I’m just mad at myself right now,” Gordon said. “I don’t know, I guess I’m just getting soft in my old age. I’m too nice because, I don’t know, 15 years ago I would have just moved him right up the race track. I don’t know why I didn’t do that.
“I thought I could get to his quarter panel and slow him down and stay there. But I got there, I just carried too much speed into (Turn) 3 and it pushed up the race track.”
Hamlin went from third to first when all 13 lead-lap cars made a pit stop with five laps remaining. His pit crew was the quickest at changing four tires and adding gas for what proved to be a two-lap green-white-checkered finish.
Martin Truex Jr., who had a commanding 100-yard lead before Jamie McMurray’s run-in with the fourth turn wall brought out the final caution, restarted third, followed by Gordon.
Hamlin quickly pulled away on the re-start and Gordon followed to make it a two-car race. On the final lap, Gordon momentarily got beside Hamlin in the third turn, only to slide wide in Turn 4. Hamlin won by 25 yards.
Gordon hung on for second, followed by Brad Keselowski, Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.
The victory allowed Hamlin to make the final cut for the playoffs. Tony Stewart, Truex, Hamlin, Clint Bowyer and Keselowski also clinched their spots. Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson locked themselves into the Chase a week earlier at Bristol Motor Speedway.
The final two spots will be settled among Gordon, Busch, Kasey Kahne, Marcos Ambrose, Carl Edwards or Joey Logano. The scenarios, however, are complicated.
The wild-card entries are for the two drivers with the most victories not ranked in the top 10 after this Saturday night’s race at the Richmond International Raceway. Kahne is the only driver of the group with two victories. Busch, Gordon, Ambrose and Logano each have one win. Edwards is winless, but he’s ranked 14th and could get one of the spots with a win.
As long as Kahne avoids an early crash or mechanical failure at Richmond, he will move into the playoffs. The only other thing that’s certain is if Gordon, Busch, Ambrose or Logano win, they’re in.
Edwards needs a win and a lot of help.
Most likely, however, the final entry will come down to a race between Busch and Gordon. Busch can eliminate Gordon by finishing 12 spots ahead of him at Richmond.
“You don’t want to have to go beat Kyle Busch at Richmond,” Gordon said. “He’s pretty strong there. I’m not going into it thinking that we’ve got to finish, whatever, 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I’m thinking we’ve got to win.”
“I’m not saying that I’m for sure going to be in at all. Anything can happen,” Busch said. “Jeff is no slouch at Richmond, either. He will be fine. I feel like that’s the guy we’re racing, the (No.) 24 car. We’ll just have to see how it all plays out. Jeff could give us a run for our money.”
The Chase starts Sept. 16 at Chicagoland Speedway.