HAMPTON, Ga. -- Winning races is the only way anyone has a chance to catch Jimmie Johnson in the race for the Sprint Cup championship.
And even that may not be enough.
Carl Edwards won Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, yet it barely kept him in Johnson's championship rearview mirror.
Johnson roared back from a rare pit-road penalty with a masterful final drive through the field to finish second and widen his lead in the standings to 183 points over Edwards with three races to go in the Chase for the championship.
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A jubilant Edwards was quickly brought back down to earth when informed of Johnson's final position while celebrating in Victory Lane.
"Are you kidding me?" Edwards asked. "You've rained on my parade. I could have done without that one. That's unbelievable, he does a great job."
A championship-winning job.
Johnson, racing for his third consecutive title, started from the pole but dropped as low as 30th and a lap off the pace after NASCAR flagged him for speeding on pit road. He had to race his way back onto the lead lap, but was still hovering outside the top 10 as the laps wound down.
After debris on the track brought out a caution with 13 laps to go, crew chief Chad Knaus made the quizzical call to bring Johnson in for a quick four-tire stop. He restarted the race in 11th with eight laps to go, but picked off cars one at a time to finish second.
"Man, I feel like I went 12 rounds with Tyson today," an exhausted Johnson said after the race. "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's out there to earn them. 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."
Denny Hamlin finished third and was followed by Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Kurt Busch. David Ragan was seventh and Jeff Gordon and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
It's a longshot, but Johnson can mathematically wrap up the title next week at Texas and become the first driver since Cale Yarborough (1976-78) to win three consecutive championships.
More realistically, he'll clinch it in two weeks in Phoenix -- the same place where he notched a fourth-straight win last season to break Gordon's spirit in what had been a fabulous race for the title.
This Chase isn't nearly as exciting, but Johnson won't slow down over the final three weeks. He figured he had a car good enough for a top-10 finish Sunday, but pushed for every last position.
"You just can't sit still and be content with sixth, seventh ... you gotta do it," he said. "My outlook is better. There's three races left and our points margin is bigger than its been. It's a step in the right direction, but until I have that trophy in my hand, I can't loosen up on this."
It's left Edwards with no room for error over the final stretch. He'll need 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 may not be enough.
"Three more good tracks for us," Edwards said. "But, man, Jimmie is magic. We've got to go win those next three and hope for the best."