By MIKE HARRIS
AP Auto Racing Writer
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.
In Victory Lane, the winner said he was amazed to be there, considering how the day had gone.
"At the end Chad got aggressive on some adjustments on the car and got us into contention, to run in the top five and maybe get a third-place finish," Johnson said. "But, with the pit strategy at the end, we were able to capitalize on a good pit call.
"We need to make the most of every race because I know it's going to be a shootout to the end."
With the melee behind Hamlin on the penultimate restart and the Earnhardt-McMurray crash at the end, the finishing order was shuffled big time.
Edwards, who had not been a factor most of the race, wound up second and kept alive his slim hopes of a championship. He came into the race fifth, 285 points behind Gordon and heads for Texas fourth, 261 back.
He was followed by Reed Sorenson, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, who remained third in the 12-man Chase, but still trails Gordon by 111 points, four less than when the race began.
Kyle Busch was, along with Truex, dominant most of the day. But the 22-year-old Busch lost the lead and fell out of contention when his jackman messed up on his final stop. He also got caught up in Hamlin's accident, spun through the infield grass and wound up 17th.