HAMPTON, GA. Carl Edwards did his seventh celebratory backflip and headed to Victory Lane confident he'd closed in on Jimmie Johnson's bumper in the race for the Sprint Cup title.
As the champagne flowed, his spirits were dashed.
Even with his victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards didn't dent Johnson's lead in the championship standings.
With a masterful final drive to the checkered flag, the two-time defending champion rallied from a rare penalty to finish second and stretch his points lead to a commanding 183 points over Edwards with three races remaining in the Chase for the championship.
"Are you kidding me?" a deflated Edwards asked when told Johnson had finished second. "You've rained on my parade. I could have done without that one. That's unbelievable; he does a great job."
A championship-winning job.
It's mathematically possible that Johnson could clinch his third title next week in Texas. If he leaves there up 323 points over the competition, Johnson would need only to start the final two races to become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three consecutive championships.
"I'm just as shocked as (Edwards) is," Johnson said. "I thought we would finish probably ninth or 10th today. I thought I was in big trouble."
So did everyone else.
NASCAR flagged Johnson for speeding on pit road early in the race, and the penalty dropped him a lap off the pace and to 30th in the field. He worked his way back onto the lead lap through cautions, then steadily moved back toward the top 10.
But as the laps wound down, that seemed to be the best Johnson could hope for.
Edwards, meanwhile, knew a victory would be the only chance he had to pull back into Johnson's championship rearview mirror. So he was aggressive on a restart with 17 laps to go to blow past Denny Hamlin and take command of the race.
A debris caution with 13 laps to go regrouped the field, and crew chief Chad Knaus used the break to call Johnson into the pits for a four-tire stop. He restarted the race in 11th with eight laps to go, but picked off cars one at a time to finish second.
His aggressive drive past nine cars almost bit him in the end: His pass of Hamlin on the last lap caused Hamlin to wiggle, and Johnson narrowly avoided wrecking.