HAMPTON, Ga. — All you can do is win races and hope something happens to Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car.
So Carl Edwards did.
Sunday afternoon he won the Pep Boys Auto 500 in what should have been a glorious moment for the No. 99 team. He thought it was the start of a comeback bid. He thought he'd cut into the two-time defending champion's massive points lead. He thought he'd done exactly what he needed to do. He was ecstatic.
Then he heard the news. Johnson finished second.
"Are you kidding me?" Edwards said.
He looked around to see if it was true as his short-lived elation faded.
"Could have done without that one," Edwards said. "That's unbelievable."
Edwards won the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and improved from fourth to second place in the points standings. But Johnson's points lead grew.
"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."
After a race that unfolded much like Johnson's season has, the No. 48 leads the Chase by 183 points. He struggled early, as he did with a 27th-place finish in the Daytona 500, then steadily improved, as he did all season. Johnson charged past nine drivers in the final eight laps for a second-place finish. He's finished in the top 10 in each of this year's seven Chase races.
"Man," Johnson said, exhausted. "I felt like I went 12 rounds with Tyson today. That was a long, long race for us."
Johnson started from the pole and led 28 laps early in the race. He stayed in the top 10 until a speeding penalty on pit road knocked him down to 30th place on Lap 89.
With calm encouragement from crew chief Chad Knaus, Johnson worked his way back up.
"Jimmie," Knaus said over the radio. "We'll get this back, man."
Wrecks and debris caused cautions that helped him close the gap. He worked his way up to the front among drivers a lap down. When Kasey Kahne spun on Lap 141, Johnson got a lucky-dog pass to get back onto the lead lap.
"Chad is out there racing. He's not trying to ride around and get points. He's out there to earn them. He called me in for tires and told me to put my cape on and off we went," Johnson said. "We just fought and fought and fought. I leave here very happy — it's almost like a win today."
Johnson was 19th on the restart.
Throughout Johnson's struggle, Matt Kenseth led five times for 128 laps. Denny Hamlin took over next, leading from laps 254 to 309.
Then finally, Edwards pushed Hamlin out of the way on a restart to take the lead for good.
Edwards was the fastest in Saturday's final practice, so he knew he could win. Knowing the points scenario, he monitored Johnson.
"I looked up there on the scoreboard and saw that he was running 7th, 8th, 9th," Edwards said.
Eleventh, actually, coming out of the final caution. On four fresh tires, Johnson picked off one driver after another, passing them on the outside. He was fourth with two laps to go and kept advancing. Edwards was out of reach, but Johnson caught Hamlin.
The most a driver can advance in one race is 161 points. Johnson could all but clinch a history-matching three-peat next week in Texas.
Realistically, only Edwards and Biffle, 185 points back, have a chance to unseat Johnson. Jeff Burton, who wrecked and finished 18th, is in fourth place, 218 points behind Johnson.
"Man, Jimmie is magic," Edwards said. "We've got to go win those next three and hope for the best."
Because all any of them can do is everything right, and it still might not be enough.