Posted: Monday September 3, 2012 1:46AM ; Updated: Monday September 3, 2012 1:54AM
Cary Estes
Cary Estes>INSIDE NASCAR

Wild-card race heats up going into final weekend, plus more analysis

Story Highlights

Denny Hamlin took advantage of a late caution to win for the second straight week

Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon have the best chance to secure a wild-card berth

Atlanta's track made for some spread-out racing, which made it hard to watch

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Denny Hamlin
Denny Hamlin won in Atlanta after winning last week in Bristol, Tenn.
John Harrelson/Getty Images

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Denny Hamlin's hangover from narrowly missing out on winning the 2010 Sprint Cup Series championship is officially over. Not only does Hamlin now have two consecutive wins and a series-best four on the season following his victory Sunday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway, but he even has Lady Luck back on his side.

Hamlin appeared to be headed for a third-place finish at Atlanta when a caution flag came out with only five laps to go. Hamlin's crew got him out of the pits in first place, and then he pulled away from Martin Truex Jr. on the restart of the ensuing green-white-checkered finish.

HAMLIN HOLDS OFF GORDON FOR BACK-TO-BACK WINS

Suddenly Hamlin looks like one of the favorites when the Chase for the Championship begins on Sept. 16 following next week's regular-season finale at Richmond. It is a drastic turnaround from last season, when Hamlin never seemed to truly get over losing the 2010 championship to Jimmie Johnson in the final race of the season. Hamlin slogged through 2011 with only one victory and never was a factor in the championship, finishing ninth in the standings. This year, he is assured of starting the Chase with at least a share of the points lead and plenty of momentum.

"A championship team is all about having all those pieces of the puzzle put together, and this year I think we have it all," Hamlin said late Sunday night from Victory Lane. "This is a championship-caliber team."

Here are five things we learned at Atlanta ...

1. The race for the wild card is shaping up to be wild -- With one race to go before the Chase begins, 11 of the 12 spots in the field are basically secured. There is a convoluted scenario in which Kasey Kahne could miss out on getting one of the two wild card positions despite having two victories, but it is extremely unlikely.

There are six drivers still in contention for the other wild card spot. Marcos Ambrose, Ryan Newman and Joey Logano all need a win next week at Richmond, which would give them two victories on the season and vault them into the Chase over the one-victory drivers ahead of them in the point standings. Carl Edwards, who is winless on the season, needs a victory and must pass both Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon in the standings to make it. Edwards trails Busch by 26 points and Gordon by 14.

Barring a victory by any of those four drivers, the battle for the final wild card spot will come down to Busch vs. Gordon. Right now, Busch holds the second wild card because he leads Gordon by 12 points. If either driver wins at Richmond, he is automatically in. Gordon also could make it if he can pass Busch in the standings, though he certainly is not counting on that happening since Richmond is one of Busch's best tracks (four victories and 12 top-fives in 15 careers starts).

"I'm not going into it thinking that we've got to finish 12 positions ahead of Kyle. I'm thinking we've got to win," Gordon said after his second-place finish Sunday. "And if we don't make it, as long as we put our best effort forward, then we didn't make it and we go try to win races in the final 10 (of the season)."

2. Unlike Hamlin, Lady Luck does not seem to be on Truex's side -- Truex has put together a solid season this year with 14 top-10 finishes. He is fifth in the point standings, ahead of multi-race winners Hamlin, Brad Keselowski and Tony Stewart. But despite all his success this season, Truex does not have a victory. He was on the verge of changing that Sunday night before the late caution forced a final pit stop and restart. When it was all over, Truex found himself walking away with an extremely frustrating fourth-place finish.

"It's tough losing when you haven't won in a long time," an obviously upset Truex said afterward. "People keep asking, 'When are you going to win? When are you going to win?' We're close. It just sucks we couldn't get it done tonight. It's just my luck. I can never get anything to go my way. I'm tired of it."

3. Unlike Hamlin, Carl Edwards' championship hangover continues to get worse -- Edwards famously lost the title to Stewart last year by a single point, and he has yet to shake the frustration of that moment. Not only has he not won a race this season, but he is now almost guaranteed of missing the Chase after an engine problem with 63 laps to go relegated him to a 36th-place finish. It was the latest in a series of troubles that has resulted in only two top-five finishes all year for Edwards, as well as a mid-season change of crew chiefs.

"I'm not a real religious person, but I feel like somebody's trying to teach me a lesson," Edwards said with a weak smile. "This year has just been amazing in a bad luck kind of way. I don't even know what to say. That's just how our season has been going and I don't know what the reason is. I just hope we get all this out of our system soon, because this is not fun."

4. Every team in NASCAR should be nervous -- While the struggling economy has been taking a toll on NASCAR sponsorship for several years, there has been cautious optimism recently that the situation is slowly improving. But the brakes were slammed on those positive feelings Sunday with the news that Office Depot will not return in 2013 as the co-primary sponsor for Stewart's No. 14 car.

If the defending Sprint Cup Series champion and one of the most recognizable figures in the sport is having a hard time holding on to his sponsors, then nobody in NASCAR can feel secure. One of the primary reasons that Joe Gibbs Racing will probably not keep Logano after this season is because of sponsorship concerns. A lack of sponsorship money has kept last year's Daytona 500 winner, Trevor Bayne, out of a full-time Cup ride this season. And now Stewart, a three-time Cup champion, must fill sponsorship voids for both his car and the No. 39 car of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman, who is losing the U.S. Army as his primary sponsor after this season.

There have been a few pieces of good financial news for NASCAR in recent weeks. NAPA announced a three-year sponsorship extension with Truex on Friday, and the National Guard extended its deal with Dale Earnhardt Jr. last month. Still, when a driver of Stewart's stature loses a primary sponsor, it is a sure sign that the financial issues facing the sport these days are a long way from being over.

5. Watching this Labor Day weekend race was truly laborious at times -- There is a fine line between watching auto racing and watching cars go around in a circle, and Sunday's race was on the wrong side of that line for most of the night. Sure the ending was exciting, but other than that, there simply wasn't much to get enthused about, unless you like talking about tire strategy and enjoy seeing cars spread out all across a mile-and-half track.

How spread out? Well, Truex was in third place two-thirds of the way through the 325-lap race, yet he was more than 15 seconds behind the leader, which at Atlanta is about half a lap. It's hard to have a lot of excitement when there is only one competitive driver on the same side of the track as the leader.

This lack of intensity has long been an issue for NASCAR on the circuit's mile-and-a-half ovals. And the problem is, there are five such tracks in the 10-race Chase for the Championship. So unfortunately, Sunday night's race is probably a sign of things to come the rest of this season.

 
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