HAMPTON, Ga. — Denny Hamlin can win anywhere in NASCAR.
He couldn’t always say that.
The fact that he now can makes him a much more dangerous contender this season for the Sprint Cup Series championship.
A week after winning on one of the series’ shortest tracks, Hamlin followed up with a victory on one of its fastest, holding off Jeff Gordon in a two-lap overtime to win Sunday night’s AdvoCare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
The victory is Hamlin’s fourth of the season – the most of any driver – and with one race remaining before the start of the 2012 Chase, he currently is its No. 1 seed.
“I’m just happy to be at the racetrack every single week knowing I can win a race. It doesn’t matter the racetrack anymore, it’s just I know we can win,” Hamlin said.
“Darian (Grubb, crew chief) has just taken this program to that next level.”
Grubb was at that level last season, winning the 2011 championship with driver Tony Stewart before joining Hamlin’s No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team in the offseason.
Hamlin came close to winning a Cup title in 2010 with crew chief Mike Ford but stumbled down the stretch and was defeated by Jimmie Johnson in the season’s final race.
“This has been something in the works for a very long time, and obviously I have a lot of wins in my career because of two very important guys: One is Darian and the other is Mike Ford,” Hamlin said.
“Mike put together 80 percent of a championship winning team, and Darian has just filled that gap and put the rest of the pieces of the puzzle together.”
While Hamlin led the most laps Sunday night (105), he by no means had the win in the bag.
Martin Truex Jr. appeared ready to snap his 191-race winless streak until a caution was displayed with five of 325 laps remaining, after Jamie McMurray blew a tire on the front stretch and hit the wall.
The lead-lap cars elected to pit for fresh tires – a necessity on Atlanta’s rough surface – and Hamlin’s pit crew got him off pit road first.
At the start of the two-lap overtime, Hamlin quickly put distance between himself and the field, only to see Gordon move in behind him on the final lap.
Gordon elected not to put a fender to Hamlin’s car and couldn’t complete a pass as Hamlin earned his first win at Atlanta.
“I should have just run into the back of him going into (Turn) 3 and moved him up the racetrack, and we would have been sitting in Victory Lane and counting another win,” Gordon said on pit road after the race.
“This Chase is too important for me to be in it and not to make a move like that. … I wouldn’t have wanted to wreck him, but I would have liked to have that one over again.”
Instead, Gordon remains mired in a battle for one of two wild-card spots in the Chase, while Hamlin and eight others – Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Matt Kenseth, Jimmie Johnson, Truex, Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick – are locked into top-10 spots in the Chase.
Stewart, currently 10th in points, is locked in the Chase as at least a wild card.
“I knew how desperate he was, but he knew that we could not let him win,” Hamlin said of Gordon. “It was critical for our team to not let Jeff get a win.
“But the reason he didn’t is because we have a mutual respect. I haven’t moved him out of the way for a win or anything like that, and we race each other with respect. We have my entire career.”
Keselowski finished third, Truex finished fourth and Harvick was fifth. Biffle continues to lead the series standings.