ATLANTA (AP) - Denny Hamlin wanted to get an early start on the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Now, he's just glad that it's almost here.
After starting from the pole, Hamlin had another dismal finish Sunday in the Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, going out with a blown engine that again raised concerns about the reliability of a car that won five races during a 10-race stretch earlier in the season.
``We just have one more week to hopefully survive,'' he said. ``At this point, I'm so lucky there's no more races (after next week at Richmond) before the Chase cutoff, or else we would be in danger of missing it. It's just very discouraging, but I know we can get it together.''
Hamlin has not won in nearly two months and struggled to finishes of 34th and 37th in two of his last three races before Atlanta. He said the team had decided to treat the last two events before the 10-race playoff as though they part of the Chase, hoping that would get the No. 11 Toyota back on track before it begins for real.
He clearly had a strong car, leading 74 laps, but knew there could be trouble when teammate Joey Logano blew a cylinder and fell off the pace.
``I saw the 20 (Logano) have problems and then I was pretty worried,'' Hamlin said.
Those fears were realized when Hamlin's car began billowing smoke on lap 144, sending him into a spin through the quad-oval grass. His night was done.
``I know if we had the reliability that we could win this championship,'' he said. ``When it gets down to the Chase, it seems like we have a lot of issues and problems with keeping our cars together, and today was just a small sign of that.''
BITTER RIVALS: Don't expect Kyle Busch and Todd Bodine to be hanging out at dinner anytime soon.
The two have developed a compelling rivalry in the NASCAR Trucks Series, which boiled over again during the most recent race at Kentucky Motor Speedway.
Bodine accused Busch of ``driving dirty'' when he got into Bodine's rear quarterpanel, causing a spin. Busch took issue with those comments, confronting Bodine before they left Kentucky and making his case again after arriving at Atlanta Motor Speedway for Sunday night's Sprint Cup race.
``It was just a matter of hard racing,'' Busch said. ``If he doesn't want me to race him that hard, he ought to give me room in the turn.''
Busch insisted that he's not a dirty driver.
``I feel like I'm a hard racer, an aggressive one,'' Busch said. ``I wouldn't say I'm dirty. Dirty is when you run into the back of somebody on the straightaway and put them into the fence.''
Bodine bounced back from his spin to win the truck race, but that didn't cause him to soften his stance on Busch's tactics.
``I've always had a lot of respect for Kyle. Slowly but surely I'm losing it,'' Bodine said. ``He's without a doubt one of the best drivers NASCAR has ever seen. ... He doesn't have to drive like that to win races but he does and he's getting away with it because NASCAR won't do anything about it. He was mad because I called him out on it.''
Busch countered that he did nothing wrong.
``I went into (turn) three knowing I had to give him a little bit of room, and I tried,'' Busch said. ``If I spin him out and he spins me out, what good does that do me? It doesn't do me any good. I actually had the courtesy to think about him spinning out, and he did. I thought I gave him room.''
Too bad they didn't get a chance to tangle again in the Sprint Cup race. Bodine was one of four drivers who failed to qualify for the 43-man field.
PRETTY IN PINK: Jeff Gordon had perhaps the most eye-catching car on the track. He can thank his 3-year-old daughter for that.
Little Ella Gordon helped design the paint scheme on her dad's No. 24 car, part of a campaign to promote Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Not surprisingly, she went heavy on pink, with some blue and white mixed in.
``We were trying to explain what she was doing and I don't think she really kind of grasped the concept,'' Gordon said. ``But you lay some paper down in front of her with an outline sketch of a race car, and give her a bunch of paint brushes and things, that is all it takes.''
Ella really got hands-on before the process was done.
``She kept wanting to put her hands in the paint, so we finally let her do that,'' Gordon said. ``That is what you see on the paint scheme is bunch of different mixtures of colors and brush strokes and hand prints.''
And what about those colors? It's not very often that you see so much pink on a race car.
``It is really bright and it is not a car you want to run in the back with,'' Gordon quipped. ``If that's the inspiration that we need, then I'm fine with that. On the flip side, I can't wreck this car because she isn't going to want to see me wreck the car she designed. So there's a lot of pressure this weekend.''
FIRST RACE: Atlanta Motor Speedway has been celebrating its 50th anniversary, including a ceremony Sunday attended by 1960 NASCAR champion Rex White, who lives in nearby Fayetteville.
Also on hand was Michael Greer, who was 8 years old when he attended the inaugural Dixie 300 on July 31, 1960.
``We sat in the lower rows, and the grit, the grime, the noise is what sticks out most in my mind,'' Greer recalled. ``Of course, as an 8-year-old boy, the mud was just an added bonus. And I've been an avid NASCAR fan ever since.''
NASCAR president Mike Helton praised longtime markets such as Atlanta for their importance in helping the Southern-rooted sport develop a national following. Of course, some might accuse the sport of abandoning its history by leaving tracks such as North Wilkesboro and Rockingham and stripping races away from Atlanta and Darlington.
Next year, the Cup series will make only one stop in Atlanta, on this same Labor Day weekend. The spring race is being shifted to Kentucky.
``These folks are at the heart and soul of the history and roots of NASCAR,'' said Helton, who served as president of the Atlanta track from 1979-86. ``When you come to the speedway and you come to Georgia, there are some pretty good stories from this neck of the woods that would support that this area contributed greatly to the early years of racing.''
LUG NUTS: Warren Buffett, one of the country's richest people, attended the race as a guest of car owner Joe Gibbs. After being introduced at the driver meeting, Buffett joked, ``I understand these guys can do pit stops in 12-plus seconds. I'm going to see what we can do to get it under 11.'' ... Gibbs delivered the invocation before the race.

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