Nearly an hour after winning Saturday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400 and cementing his spot in NASCAR's new championship showdown, Jeremy Mayfield was still being shuttled between interviews and promotional appearances.
When the route took him past his giddy pit crew -- which had already been reprimanded by NASCAR officials for a rollicking post-race celebration that spilled onto the track -- Mayfield took a break for another round of rowdy hugs.
"Get that finger sized up, baby!" screamed rear tire changer Mike Janssen. And no one snickered.
In years past, of course, a mid-September suggestion that the ninth-place driver might soon be fitted for championship jewelry would have been nothing short of laughable. Under the old format, Mayfield would still be 409 points behind leader Jeff Gordon, a virtually insurmountable margin with 10 races to go.
But in NASCAR's suddenly popular "Chase for the Championship," Mayfield is now 40 points out of the lead, a gap that could theoretically be made up at next Sunday's Sylvania 300 in Loudon, N.H.
"We're pumped up now, and there's no reason we can't win the championship," said Mayfield, one of the few drivers who immediately embraced the dramatic changes NASCAR introduced in January. "I'm pumped up more than I've ever been in my career."
He wasn't alone. After a night of frantic scoreboard watching -- in which emissaries from pit road sprinted into the infield media center to stare at the most recent standings and the composition of the top 10 changed at least four times -- several playoff qualifiers were bubbling over with excitement.
"This has by far been the most fun week I ever had," said Elliott Sadler, coming off a win last weekend that for all practical purposes clinched his spot in the title chase. "I can't wait to get the playoffs started."
For all its drama, Saturday's finale was less chaotic than many had predicted. With eight men vying for three spots, the weekend was filled with questions about desperate drivers taking desperate measures. Despite an erratic night for Dale Jarrett -- who traded paint with three cars and never sniffed the top 10 -- the event was strangely peaceful. The final 101 laps were run under a green flag, and there were no post-race incidents.
Even the five drivers excluded from the top 10 were subdued, with 13th-place Bobby Labonte pointing out that "there's a lot worse things in the world than this right now."
But there were plenty of regrets. The race was disappointing for rookie Kasey Kahne, who started the night inside the top 10 but fell a lap down and then dropped out of the playoffs. It was painful for Labonte and Kevin Harvick, both of whom spent the vast majority of the season in the top 10 but were unable to reverse recent struggles.
And it was especially heartbreaking for Jamie McMurray, who ended the night running on seven cylinders and was left in 11th place in the standings, just 15 points out of the chase.
The second-year driver was penalized 25 points by NASCAR this spring for an unapproved rear window; without the penalty, he would be in and Ryan Newman would be out.
But the field is set, and now the promotions begin. On Wednesday, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch and NASCAR President Mike Helton are expected to be at Nextel headquarters in Reston, where the championship trophy will be unveiled. That night, the top 10 will dine with NASCAR Chairman-CEO Brian France in New York. Thursday morning brings scheduled appearances on "Today" and "Live With Regis and Kelly."
And Sunday afternoon will be the first of the 10 deciding races.
The new format "has added so much excitement to this deal," Busch said. "It could have been a two-horse race or a four-horse race, but now we have 10 guys competing."