-- At the end of 400 harried laps under the lights at Richmond International Raceway, nerves were frayed, egos were bruised, Kurt Busch's car was in Victory Lane and the lineup for the "Chase for the Nextel Cup" was set.
But the whole evening will be remembered as much for who did not squeeze into the Chase as for who did.
Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman, in order, secured the final three spots in NASCAR's equivalent of a postseason, while Jeff Gordon, stock car racing's most recognizable driver and four-time Cup champion, battled a poor-handling car for most of the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 and wound up 30th, 83 points out of the Chase.
Gordon started sixth, but slipped to 28th after pitting on Lap 115 for a loose lug nut. He continued to run in the rear of the field until Lap 214, when he was forced up too far up the track by Johnny Sauter in Turn 2 and smacked the wall.
"That's it; we're done," Gordon yelled over the radio.
Richmond, the season's 26th race, represents the cutoff point for the Chase, the playoff system adopted last season to increase suspense during the series' stretch run. Only the drivers in the top 10 in the points standing remain eligible to win the Nextel Cup. The 10-race Chase begins next Sunday at New Hampshire.
"It was going to be a long night no matter what," Gordon said. "It was a disappointing night that just goes along with a disappointing season."
Although Gordon's hopes for a fifth championship were over after his brush with the concrete retaining wall, things were just heating up for everyone else.
Edwards, in his first full Cup season, avoided disaster on Lap 357 when he slithered through a seven-car wreck that began when he rubbed fenders with Dale Jarrett. Several laps earlier, he admitted over his radio to his crew that he was "just a little nervous."
For Jamie McMurray, his Chase heartbreak continued. A year after missing the last spot by a mere 15 points, he began the race occupying 10th in the points. He surrendered that position, but was still fighting to get back in late when he got spun out by Tony Raines with 37 laps left. At the time, he was 18 points out of the final spot.
"Obviously, we're not happy about being 10th, but we've got 10 races to get into first," said Newman, who began the day 11th, one point behind McMurray.
Five drivers -- Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin -- had already clinched a spot in the Chase prior to Saturday. Kurt Busch qualified when he took the green flag and Jeremy Mayfield clinched during the race. (Last year, Mayfield scored his first win in four years here, just enough to propel him into the Chase.) Team owner Jack Roush will enter the Chase as the heavy favorite to win his third consecutive championship, with five of his cars -- Busch, Kenseth, Biffle, Martin and Edwards -- having qualified.
"It was great to have dug our way out of the hole and made the chase," said Kenseth, the 2003 champion, who finished second in Saturday's race. "We got a lot momentum right now. All of the Roush cars are running really well right now. It's fun to be part of that team."
Ten drivers began the day with a mathematical chance of moving into the Chase. But only three -- Newman, Gordon and Elliot Sadler -- had a realistic shot.
Gordon knew what he had to do. And he knew it wouldn't be easy. Gordon had to leapfrog both Newman and McMurray to get into the Chase.
The DuPont team's Saturday mimicked its entire season. Despite a strong qualifying run, by the race's midway point Gordon radioed this assessment to his crew: "Something is going on with the front end. It just seems like we've either got to much rebound in the front and not enough camber or something. I mean, I just can't do anything with it no matter what speed I drive."
Gordon's failure to make the Chase not only dealt his own sparkling legacy a blow, it may prove damaging to the sport, at least in the short term. Fan interest could wane down the stretch with Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- the series's most popular drivers -- eliminated from championship contention. For Gordon, it assured him of his first non-top 10 points finish since 1993 his first full Cup season.
"We just need to put this behind us and figure out what's wrong with our race team," Gordon said. "Bottom line is we were way off. The car really wasn't a whole lot different before I hit the wall than it was after."