HAMPTON, Ga. - Carl Ed-wards did his seventh celebratory backflip and headed to Victory Lane confident he had 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 in Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Edwards didn't dent Johnson's lead in the standings.
With a masterful drive in the closing laps, Johnson, the two-time defending champion, rallied from a rare penalty to finish second and stretch his points lead to 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."
Johnson could clinch his third title next week in Texas, though it's a long shot. If he leaves there 323 points up over second place, 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."
NASCAR flagged Johnson for speeding on pit road early, and the penalty dropped him a lap off the pace, 30th in the field. He worked his way back onto the lead lap via cautions, then steadily moved back to the top 10.
Edwards, meanwhile, was aggressive on a restart with 17 laps to go to blow past Denny Hamlin and take command.
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. Johnson restarted in 11th with eight laps to go, but picked off cars one at a time.
His aggression almost bit him; his pass of Hamlin for second on the last of 325 laps caused Hamlin to wiggle, and Johnson narrowly avoided wrecking.
Exhausted, he went to the postrace news conference and quietly checked the standings on a television monitor as he headed toward the podium.
"Man, I feel like I went 12 rounds with (Mike) Tyson today," Johnson said. "That was just a great call, a risky call, but it just goes to show that Chad is out there racing. He's not trying to ride around and get points. ... He called me in for tires and told me to put my cape on and off we went.
"We just fought and fought and fought. I leave here very happy - it's almost like a win today."
Hamlin finished third and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch.
Despite his comfortable margin, Johnson resisted laying claim to yet another title. He realistically won't clinch for another two weeks in Phoenix - the same place where he notched a fourth straight win last season.
Edwards needs to win at Texas - and the winner of Atlanta has gone on to win the next week in Texas the past three years - to stay in contention, and even that might not be enough.
"Three more good tracks for us," Edwards said of Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. "But, man, Jimmie is magic."
BUSCH REVIVAL: It didn't help in the standings, but Kyle Busch had another strong run.
Busch, the points leader going into the 10-race playoffs, dropped from contention when he started the Chase with finishes of 34th, 43rd and 28th. But the No. 18 team shows signs of recapturing the form that made Busch unbeatable earlier this year. Busch was fourth at Charlotte two weeks ago, and followed it with fifth place Sunday.
"I'm happy with that, I guess," Busch said. "If we can keep finishing in the top five ... then the wins should come back our way."
Busch remains last among 12 drivers in the Chase, 465 points behind Johnson and 40 behind the next-lowest driver, Hamlin.
BEAT-UP MILESTONE: Michael Waltrip became just the second driver with 1,000 NASCAR starts, but wound up with his car's rear quarter-panel ripped off after a wreck and a 37th-place finish. This was Waltrip's 722nd Sprint Cup start, to go with 270 in the Nationwide series and eight in trucks. Only seven-time Cup champion Richard Petty - with 1,184 starts, all at the highest level - has more.
Winner's average speed: 134.272 mph
Time of race: 3 hours, 43 minutes, 39 seconds
Margin of victory: 2.684 seconds
Caution flags: 10 for 43 laps
Lead changes: 18 among 8 drivers
Lap leaders: Johnson 1-20; Edwards 21-36; Speed 37; Johnson 38-45; Edwards 46-88; Kenseth 89; Earnhardt Jr. 90; Edwards 91-111; Biffle 112; Kenseth 113-131; Edwards 132; Kenseth 133-209; Edwards 210; Ku.Busch 211-221; Kenseth 222; Ku.Busch 223; Kenseth 224-253; Hamlin 254-309; Edwards 310-325.
Sprint Cuppoint standings
With three races to go. Only these drivers are eligible in the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
J. Johnson 6,248 -
Carl Edwards 6,065 183
Greg Biffle 6,063 185
Jeff Burton 6,030 218
Kevin Harvick 5,941 307
Jeff Gordon 5,936 312
Clint Bowyer 5,934 314
Tony Stewart 5,847 401
Matt Kenseth 5,835 413
D. Earnhardt Jr. 5,829 419
Denny Hamlin 5,823 425
Kyle Busch 5,783 465
Note: Points unofficial; NASCAR posts official standings today
Dickies 500, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth. TV: Ch. 28