Ray Evernham was fighting the thick air of tension with every step on pit road. Up ahead, Mark Martin sat in his car ready to vomit -- but more on that later.
Finally beside his No. 19 Dodge, Evernham bent down and leaned against the driver-side window to have a word with his driver.
"No matter what happens -- win, lose or draw -- we walk out this gate with our heads up and keep going," he told Jeremy Mayfield.
Mayfield closed his eyes and, before clearing his mind, let the last few months wash over him.
After having charged so valiantly through the mid-season, teasing and threatening all the way to crack the top 10, Jeremy Mayfield's goal of qualifying among the 10-driver group to compete for the 2004 Nextel Cup title took a beating this past month.
Teetering on the verge of the promised land, hanging by a thread in 10th, he went out with two underachieving performances in California and Bristol, and ended up four places down in 14th entering Saturday night's race at Richmond International Raceway -- the final event before the title-contending field would be frozen.
"I thought we'd wrecked our chances," Mayfield said.
But the eternal optimist held onto hope. Mayfield had predicted that his team had turned the corner in each of his past three seasons, but the underlying inexperience and equipment gap kept him at bay, failing to even finish among the top 10 in any of those final points standings.
This year, when hope had all but fled his No. 19 Evenham Motorsports Dodge team, he held on to a sliver of the championship dream and entered Richmond armed with an open mind.
"I couldn't see us getting in without winning the thing," Mayfield said.
What Mayfield left unsaid was this: He hadn't given up hope on winning.
The pressure was on: 14th place, with drivers like Ryan Newman, his teammate Kasey Kahne, Kevin Harvick, Dale Jarrett, Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray all fighting him for a coveted spot among the top 10. It wasn't an enviable position.
In fact, Mayfield was so close to missing the cut that only one driver separated him from being mathematically eliminated coming into Saturday night's Richmond race.
All of this was apparent to the Kentucky native while he sat in his car on pit road, ready to take the green flag for the Chevy Rock and Roll 400. In a flash, though, it all vanished. Suddenly, the green flag fell, and so did the right cards. Passing drivers, avoiding wrecks, storming off of pit road, Mayfield was a contender when it mattered. He was running in second with 10 laps and 7½ miles left to race.
That's when he caught the break of a lifetime. Lap 393: Race-leader Kurt Busch ran out of fuel. Mayfield couldn't believe his eyes.
"The way my luck's been," he said, "I thought there's no way in hell he is going to run out of gas. They told me it was going to be close. I kept running hard trying to catch him. We were pretty even at the end. I just didn't know if I was going to have anything for him or not.
"All of a sudden he ran out (of fuel), and I was like, 'This can't be true.' Now it's my turn to either cut a tire or hit the wall or something. That's luck and it's what we've been needing all year. The breaks kind of went our way tonight. It was an unbelievable feeling when I saw that."
An even better feeling: Seeing his team converge around him in Victory Lane. For all the criticism that little haven has received in recent weeks for rehearsed celebration and gaudy sponsorship schemes, Saturday night was a return to the roots. Smiling faces, tears flooding, joy overflowing.
"We had to win tonight, and if we didn't we wouldn't be here," Mayfield said. "... I was so proud of the race team tonight. The last couple of weeks we've been terrible on pit road. We stuck with the same guys. They kept working hard, and they worked real hard this week. They knew this race was going to be the one to pull us out of the hole, and they did it. They came in here tonight and did their part and did it well. I'm very proud of them."
The team has turned the corner on title contention. In its fourth year of existence, and third year with Mayfield behind the wheel of a car, Evernham Motorsports finally has a driver within 50 points of first with 10 races to go. In the circus shootout NASCAR has constructed where anything can happen, Mayfield and Co. are ecstatic to have a legitimate title shot.
"We had a really tough couple of years trying to get this team where it needs to be, and I think we've got it," Mayfield said. "I think we've been on our way to getting it there. It just all sort of came together.
"We probably needed the last two weeks -- California and Bristol were reality checks for us. It kind of slapped us in the face and said you need to wake up and get on top of this thing or you're not going to be in it. Everybody on our race team stood up to the plate and gave me good cars and good motors and great stops to be able to win that thing."
Meanwhile, standing outside his hauler in the garage area, Martin was celebrating, too. He didn't win. He barely squeaked in for a top-five finish. But his nausea had subsided.
Martin was also on the bubble in the title contention chase, entering Richmond having just cracked the top 10 for the first time all season.
"It looked like he was going to throw up in the drivers' meeting," Martin's teammate Matt Kenseth said. "I told him everything was going to be OK."
It was. Fifth place was good enough for Martin to inch up two spots and finish safely among the top 10.
"He looks a little more relieved now," Kenseth said.
Martin, whose lack of optimism offsets Mayfield's abundance, even conceded a little more than a twinge of hope going forward.
"It's half full right now," Martin said of the proverbial glass. "We had to make that cut, and it's been a tough one. I love my team. I don't know if you guys scan us (over the radio during the race) or not, but I bet I've told my team in 20 of the 26 races (that) I loved them. I love my team."
Martin said his crew chief Pat Tryson and his team stuck together for what was perhaps the most trying 26 races of his career. He said going down to the wire this season just to make the top 10 after Richmond was more stressful than his failed attempt to beat Tony Stewart for the 2002 Winston Cup title.
"Now, we're whatever we are, 40 points behind instead of 400, and we're in, and I promise it will be a lot less stressful from here on out than it has been trying to get here," Martin said. "You had to race great race teams, just like racing for a championship, just to make that cut.
"Mayfield, Kasey Kahne, these guys, man, they ran. It was tough. ... I just don't recall having to fight as hard as Pat and I have had to fight, just to get into something."
But they're in. The downside? Each driver in the top 10 is separated by just five points from one another. So the tiniest mistake could still derail one's title dreams.
Jimmie Johnson, who had long-since clinched a spot among the title chasers, said he saw some driving on Saturday night that has him more than a little scared for the 10 races remaining. He watched as Jimmy Spencer and Dale Jarrett chased Casey Mears for several laps trying to wreck the kid. Johnson couldn't understand what Mears might have done to anger the two veterans.
What's more, he couldn't tolerate the fact that when the cars finally did meet it resulted in his getting caught up in a multi-car wreck and finishing 36th.
"This could happen at Homestead," Johnson said. "That's the one thing that I don't like about the points system is that you can have somebody acting like this and be completely out of a championship. This is why I'm not a big fan of this point system. We've put too much hard work and effort into this to have something stupid like this happen."
The wreck and Johnson's subsequent comments brought one thing to light: While the drivers aren't going to appreciate seeing their points leads whittled down to five by NASCAR, making them vulnerable to the slightest of hiccups, the fans are probably going to have a ball watching the tense competition ensue and the points lead swap with potential weekly frequency.
Newman summed it up: "I guess what matters is that we made it (in the top 10). We won the battle, but we haven't won the war. We'll get our guns polished up for the last 10 races and do what we have to do as a team."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.