HAMPTON - "Now we're in striking distance."
With three races to go, that's exactly where Jimmie Johnson needed to be in his quest to pass teammate Jeff Gordon and repeat as Nextel Cup champion.
Johnson put himself in that position Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, surviving a pair of late-lap melees to complete the season sweep at NASCAR's fastest track.
It was that kind of good luck that helped Johnson find his way to victory lane for the eighth time this season and creep within nine points of Gordon's lead.
Good luck was not, however, something that several other drivers who ran up front could say they had.
From the green flag it looked like Kurt Busch would be the man to beat, as the driver of the No. 2 took point on lap No. 2 and blistered the field for most of the next 100 laps.
But 100 laps was as long as Busch's luck would hold.
David Stremme spun in the front stretch on lap 100 to bring out the caution. On the subsequent pitstop, Busch's jackman failed to get the car up high enough, preventing the tire-changer from removing the right front tire. The snafu cost Busch the lead and he restarted in 13th position.
Mistakes like those cost Busch track position all day and made him gun-shy of trips to his pit stall.
"We would come in first, second or third and go out 12th," Busch said. "I'm scared to come down pit road because our crew isn't hitting on all cylinders."
On the restart on lap 104, the day's second dominant car took over.
Martin Truex Jr. put his No. 1 Chevrolet in the No. 1 spot and stayed there for most of the next 125 laps. A series of cautions from lap 165 to 178 shuffled Truex backward, but he was able to regain the lead and hold it again for 58 more laps before yet another caution on lap 235.
It was then that the younger Busch brother, Kyle, began to creep into the picture.
Kyle Busch passed Kasey Kahne on lap 240 and kept the No. 5 in front until near the end, surrendering the lead only briefly to Truex.
But with what should have been seven laps to go, the younger Busch fell victim to the same bad luck - in an eerily similar fashion - that plagued his brother.
With the field pitting for tires and fuel, Kyle Busch's jackman also failed to get the car up high enough, preventing the tire changer from changing the right front. That dropped Kyle Busch several spots - and caused his temper to flare.
After the bad stop, Busch warned his team not to say anything if he brought the car back "all wadded up."
"I'm sure he was frustrated as good as he was running," said team owner Rick Hendrick. "When guys are frustrated, some guys handle it better than others. ... If the caution hadn't come out, he probably would've won the race."
The mistake would prove to be even more costly though.
On the restart, leader Denny Hamlin ran out of fuel at the flagstand. Several cars, including Johnson's, made it around Hamlin to the right. But Truex nailed the 11 hard in the back while Kyle Busch cut to the left, glanced off Truex and went spinning through the infield grass.
Truex's car would have to be towed from the track, and he would finish a dismal 31st. Kyle Busch would drop back to finish 20th.
Meanwhile, Johnson, who hadn't led all day, had taken only two tires and found himself out front for a green/white/checker finish. With Carl Edwards and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in his rearview mirror, Johnson took the overtime flag intent on holding off the field.
As it turned out, he didn't have to.
Earnhardt's rear wheel fell off between turns 1 and 2.
The Budweiser Chevy went sliding, a trail of sparks behind it.
"It looked like it swapped ends in a hurry," Johnson said. "I'm not really sure. Someone coming across my radio thought the left rear fell off."
The race then finished, appropriately enough, under caution on a day that saw a track-record 14 yellow flags.
Good luck and loose wheels aside, Johnson said he could've won anyway.
"I feel confident that we would have been able to hang on and win the race," Johnson said. "We had a good car today. Probably not the fastest. It was (crew chief Chad Knaus') pit call at the end."
Knaus was just glad the gamble paid off.
"When that caution came out, we knew we didn't have a car capable of winning the race. We kind of called an audible and took two tires."
The audible has Johnson on Gordon's heels going to Texas.
"We took a good bite out of Jeff's points lead today," Johnson said. "Whoever outperforms the other guy is going to be the champion. ... I'm doing everything I can to exploit any weakness I can find."
Despite losing so much of his cushion, Gordon remained upbeat.
"The fact that we minimized it in the end, you have to take the positive out of it," Gordon said. "We haven't gone anywhere. We're right here, right in the thick of it. If a bad day for us is seventh for the next three races, then I'll be happy."
Hendrick, who will likely have a champion either way, is looking forward to the teammates battling it out to the end.
"We'll see if our nerves can stand three more events," he said. "Nobody's cutting anybody any slack."