HAMPTON, Ga. A two-tire stop for Jimmie Johnson paid off with a victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, turning the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship into a virtual dead heat between the reigning champion and teammate Jeff Gordon.
Johnson and Gordon, who came into the Pep Boys Auto 500 separated by 53 points, both struggled during most of the race before winding up first and seventh, leaving four-time champion Gordon with a nine-point lead with three remaining.
With all the leaders concerned about running out of gas, rookie Johnny Sauter's blown tire brought out the 11th of a track record 12 caution flags on the 318th of a scheduled 325 laps on the 1.5-mile oval.
Denny Hamlin, who had been running sixth, was the only leader who stayed on track, taking the lead. The others pitted and Johnson jumped from fifth to second as crew chief Chad Knaus made a late decision to change only two tires.
The race restarted on lap 323, but Hamlin ran out of gas on the restart and cars began dodging everywhere to try to miss him and each other. Martin Truex Jr., who had one of the best cars all day, wound up slamming into the rear of Hamlin and the caution waved again.
That left Johnson, who barely dodged Hamlin's slow car, in the lead, with Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. right behind and set up a two-lap overtime.
The race resumed on lap 328 and, before the leaders got through the first turn, something snapped in the rear of Earnhardt's car, sending him spinning into the wall. He collected Jamie McMurray, who had been running fifth, and the race ended under yellow with Johnson picking up his eighth win of the season and second in a row.
"Today wasn't the best day for our car," said Johnson, who swept both Atlanta races this season. "Circumstances at the end really worked out for us. When I left pit road and there were five or six cars behind us and two tires, I knew we were probably in great shape."
Gordon, who saw his lead almost disappear, said the pressure is on even more heading into next Sunday's race at Texas.
"I feel like we've got the team and the equipment to do it, but those guys are tough and they're showing it every weekend. All I'm focusing right now is trying not to have the bad day and, for a while, it looked like today was going to be the bad day.
"We struggled there for a while and, to come back and finish seventh, it was a great day, even though Jimmie won."Johnson said he will donate his winnings from Sunday's race to the American Red Cross for the fire relief effort in his native California.
1. Jeff Gordon, 6,201
2. J. Johnson, 6,192
3. Clint Bowyer, 6,090
4. Carl Edwards, 5,940
5. Tony Stewart, 5,879
6. Kyle Busch, 5,873
7. Kevin Harvick, 5,809
8. Jeff Burton, 5,801
9. Kurt Busch, 5,782
10. Denny Hamlin, 5,777
11. Matt Kenseth, 5,753
12. M. Truex Jr., 5,688