RICHMOND, Va. -- When the checkered flag fell at Richmond International Raceway and Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman knew they had clinched spots in the Chase for the Nextel Cup, the group let out a collective sigh as a large weight lifted from their shoulders.
They weren't jumping up and down, yelling with and high-fiving their teams. They were mindful of the fact that their task has only just begun. Still, the tension they all came into the night with -- all hovering around the 10th position and in danger of missing the cut -- was relieved. And the guys couldn't help but joke around with one another after the race.
Asked how he felt going from little fame prior to the season to making the Chase, Edwards responded, "It's surprised the hell out of me." A brief moment of concern set in, though, as he wondered if he might get bit by the 25-point penalty NASCAR imposes on drivers who curse.
"Twenty-five points?" teammate Greg Biffle said, containing a laugh. "That drops you back out of the Chase, right?"
Edwards' face was stone cold: "Don't even joke about that," he said.
As the media gathered and tried to capture the mood of these final three invitees to title contention, they were more interested in ribbing each other and enjoying their accomplishment.
"I'm sorry guys," Edwards said. "We're all just real happy to be in here."
That was the mood. There was relief, jocularity, and high spirits.
What it wasn't was overly celebratory.
"The real work is just now beginning," Newman said. "We're in the Chase, now. Now we need to figure out how to win a championship."
Only Kenseth, who finished ninth in the points standings, had any sense of certainty throughout the night. He cracked the top 10 within the first dozen laps and never faded.
"I'm relieved," Kenseth said afterward. "I'm more than relieved, I'm excited. We were way behind with two months to go. We just kept digging and digging. They kept giving me better race cars. I'm real excited. I think we have the momentum."
Kenseth's run into the Chase was improbable to say the least -- climbing from 17th in the points.
For Newman and Edwards, their points movement was in the opposite direction. Edwards found himself hoping to hang onto eighth place and Newman was on the outside by one point and looking in.
Edwards' bid was in danger midway through the race. After starting strong, a mid-race pit stop agitated his car and he dropped through the field. Edwards fell a lap down and later was caught up in a wreck.
Edwards could hear his mind screaming, "Man, this is really going the wrong way."
"I saw the whole deal flash before my eyes," he added.
Luckily, though, the wreck put little more than a few scratches on his car, and he was able to get his lap back and finish 21st -- good enough to make the Chase.
"I can't believe it," said Edwards, the most visibly elated of the three. "This is going to make for a nice trip home."
Newman's concerns stemmed from a tight battle he was engaged in with Jamie McMurray for 10th. On his last pit stop, McMurray took two tires to try to gain an edge over the guys who opted for a gas-and go. Newman's worries subsided, however, after McMurray wrecked and his Chase bid died.
"His misfortune was our fortune," Newman said. "We're just happy to be in the top 10. Obviously we're not happy to be 10th, but now we'll work on what we need to fix to get better from here."
The point, Newman said, is that he's got 10 more races to make those adjustments in pursuit of the 2005 title. And when it comes to that, there are only nine others who can share in that sentiment.
How does that make the three newest addition to that gang of 10 feel?
"Phew," Edwards sighed over his radio after crossing the start/finish. "That'll work."
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.