His crew changed four tires and added gasoline faster than 12 other lead-lap teams with four laps to go to get him out front – and in Victory Lane – at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Martin Truex Jr. had a 100-yard lead with five laps remaining when Jamie McMurray smacked the fourth turn wall to bring out a caution. Hamlin came onto pit road in third place and left in first.
Jeff Gordon, who needs a victory to qualify for the playoffs as a wild-card entry, pressured Hamlin during the green-white-checkered finish. He tried so hard in on the final lap, his car washed up in the fourth turn to allow Hamlin to win by 25 yards.
“Pit crew won me the race,” Hamlin said. “I don’t have to say anything. Wins are all that matters. That’s what it takes to win a championship. You have to have all the pieces.”
Gordon hung on for second, while Brad Keselowski was third, Martin Truex Jr. was fourth, Kevin Harvick was fifth and Kyle Busch was sixth.
On Friday, car owner Michael Waltrip and sponsor NAPA extended Truex’s contract by three years. On Sunday, he almost paid them back with a victory.
Truex ran down race leader Hamlin after a re-start with 44 laps to go, and from there he appeared to run away to his first victory since 2007.
Hamlin (105 laps led) and Harvick (101) dominated most of the race, but Truex came one strong during the stretch drive.
The caution for McMurray’s trouble spoiled it all. And it
“Just wasn’t meant to be, I guess,” Truex said.
With so much on the line, Gordon was disappointed he didn’t use everything at his disposal, including his front bumper, to beat Hamlin.
“I got everything I could ask for. I got the restart I needed. I got a run on him,” Gordon said. “I made a mistake on him. I should have run in the back of him going into (Turn) 3 and move him up. I would like to have that over again.
“I’m getting soft in my old age. Fifteen years ago I would have moved him up the race track.”
Tony Stewart started on the pole, but his car did a quick fade and was never in contention. Hamlin’s torrid pace in the first 110 laps – one-third into the race – not only was Stewart a lap down, so were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kasey Kane, McMurray, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman, Jeff Burton and Paul Menard.
A slow re-start following a caution for debris at Lap 131 allowed Harvick to get out front – and pull away from the field. With the exception of green-flag stops, Harvick led the next 166 miles.
Then it was Truex’s turn to take control – until the late caution.
Carl Edwards was one of many drivers who had a chance to move into the Chase for the Championship as a wild card entry with a victory, but his chances died with blown engine with is battery with 61 laps to go. He wound up 36th.
A year ago he finished tied with Stewart in the Chase, but lost the championship in a tiebreaker.
He is winless this season and must change next week at the Richmond International Raceway to have any chance of make the final cut into the playoffs.
“Real big picture? I’m not a real religious person but I feel like somebody is trying to teach me a lesson,” he said. “We don’t quit. This is almost too much to put into words. It’s frustrating, too hard to put into words.”
It wasn’t much better for the other wild card hopefuls. Joey Logano struggled with flu-like symptoms and finished two laps off the pace. Marcos Ambrose was a lap down and Ryan Newman was involved in a three-car crash that also involved Jimmie Johnson and Sam Hornish Jr.
“We got one chore to do with the U.S. Army team – got into Richmond next week and win,” Newman said. “We’ve done it before; we can do it again.”