Jimmie Johnson won the Pep Boys 500 on Sunday.
HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon are quickly turning the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship into their own private duel.
A two-tire stop for Johnson paid off with a victory Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, making the Chase a virtual dead heat at the top between the reigning champion and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate and friend.
Johnson and Gordon, who came into the Pep Boys Auto 500 separated by 53 points, both struggled with the handling on their Chevrolets most of the day. But, thanks to a wild finish, they wound up first and seventh, leaving four-time champion Gordon with a nine-point lead with three of the 10 Chase races remaining.
"I just think it's going to be a fight to the end," Johnson said. "We took a good bite out of Jeff's points lead today and it's going to come down to a position or two in the next three.
"Now, I feel very good about where we are in the points. We can go lead laps, we can try to lead the most laps and really race for this championship over the next three races. I'm very excited about that."
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 suburban Atlanta oval.
Denny Hamlin, who had been running sixth, was the only leader who stayed on the 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.