The playoff picture is starting to clear up, bringing into focus a five-man race for two spots that will be up for grabs in a one-race shootout. To the victors go a serious shot at the 2005 Nextel Cup title. To the rest, there's always next year -- and a bitter taste to swallow over the remaining 10 races of the year.
When the brake dust settled in Fontana, Calif., three more drivers punched tickets to the Chase for the Nextel Cup, joining points leader Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson. Added to the list: Kurt Busch, the defending champ, and Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin, two retiring vets.
And although that's only six spots clinched, leaving four up for grabs, Jeremy Mayfield and Carl Edwards advanced their causes by staying 145 and 116 points, respectively, ahead of 11th place. The most a driver can make up in one race is 156.
And so it boils down to five drivers heading to Richmond International Raceway duking it out for two spots -- a mere 62 points currently separating ninth place from 13th.
With Matt Kenseth in ninth and Jamie McMurray in 10th, the two are statistically the favorites. But there's more to their causes than numbers. There's the momentum and confidence that is shooting through each team right now, each having climbed two spots into the top 10 with their respective runs at California Speedway on Sunday night.
Take Kenseth, for instance. The 2003 Cup champ has risen from 16th just three races ago to his current perch thanks to a victory and two other top-seven finishes.
"I didn't think we had a chance to [make the playoffs]," Kenseth said. "But we've run much better and, you know, the guys that have been around us in points have had some trouble and maybe haven't run as well the second half of the year and had some things happen to them, too."
Although Kenseth admits that he'd all but given up hope, he's careful to clarify that he never quit. Neither did his team. And what makes the No. 17 squad, the hottest of all the bubble teams, even more dangerous is that it won't quit now that it's among the top 10, either.
"We're not in it yet," Kenseth said. "We still have another week to go."
That week is another opportunity for McMurray and his No. 42 Dodge team to continue its streak -- not of personal success, per se, but of capitalizing on others' mistakes. The first team out of the Chase last season has been hovering dangerously around 10th place since April.
That's not a good time to go eight-straight events without a top-10 finish, but with drivers like Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Elliott Sadler, Kevin Harvick and -- for the early part of that run -- Kenseth struggling, McMurray's top-10 draught has nonetheless yielded a 10th-place perch in the standings with just one race left.
But the team understands its predicament -- that it's received some good fortune with regard to other teams' performances even though its own performance has not been the best. This neither makes for super-high confidence nor signficantly low esteem. It simply provides hope. McMurray believes that the sting of just missing the cut last season, which he insists the team still feels, will take care of the rest.
"Everyone on this team is incredibly focused," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that we are capable of getting into this deal and then competing for the title, we just need a little luck on our side."
Unless that fortune comes in the form of a victory, then the only way McMurray can secure a playoff berth is by hoping his fortunes are not only good -- but, more importantly, better than Ryan Newman's, Gordon's and Sadler's. McMurray is just one measly point ahead of Newman in the standings -- which is a tough realization for a team that's hurting for a top-10.
Still, that one point that separates McMurray in 10th from Newman in 11th is a big point. Newman's No. 12 team has been scratching and clawing to remain in the top 10, but the ship has sprung a leak as of late and it's been losing points fast.
Still, Newman isn't bowing out of the hunt just because five straight finishes outside the top 10 have dropped him from sixth to 11th in the standings. In the four races heading into California, Newman had finished 30th or worse three times. So his 18th-place finish at California on Sunday wasn't exactly deflating.
"That's OK," he said. "We've got what we've got right now. We're still alive. We've got our heads just barely below water, but we've got time to pick it back up, and get a breath of fresh air."
Gordon got to take a breath last week when, after finishing sixth at Bristol Motor Speedway, he snuck into 10th place after having fallen as low as 15th. But it was a quick stay in the land of safety. Gordon, who had strong practice runs and a strong qualifying effort coming into Sunday's race, looked headed for a top-10 finish and a boost in the standings.
But his next-to-last set of tires wore quickly and, after choosing not to pit when most of the rest of the field did, Gordon began moving backward as the laps waned. He pitted during the final caution and moved from 29th up to 21st before the checkered fell, but he lost two spots in the rankings and must make up 30 points next week.
"You'll have those good nights when things will happen [and] we thought we had [that tonight] at one time," Gordon said. "I don't know if we just got a bad set of tires, over adjusted or what. We were really looking good and then things just went backwards. We struggled back and forth all night."
Gordon acknowledged that a bubble team's points standing is not the only thing that matters this late in the regular season, saying that the presence or lack of momentum plays a large role. To that end, his team's inconsistency concerns him. As well it should. If there's one perk to being Gordon, who is booed almost everywhere he goes, it's that he can intimidate other drivers in big races because he's been so clutch for the large part of his career. This season, his has not been the contention-worthy team it normally is, though.
"We're definitely the ones that are behind," he said. "We've got to attack really hard. I don't see how we can do anything more than what we're doing, [though]. We're already attacking as hard as we can and that hasn't been working. There's nothing more we can do than what we are doing now."
Gordon's 30-point defecit represents a need to finish anywhere from six to 10 spots ahead of McMurray next weekend, depending on where he finishes relative to everyone else and how many laps he leads. That's certainly doable -- particularly at Richmond, where he's won four times.
For Sadler, he's got a defecit twice as big to cover. And he needs to do it, not only on 10th-place McMurray, but on Newman and Gordon, as well. It's understandable, then, that he's not going to talk points. He's not preaching that a mathematical shot means hope floats. He's not coming with guarantees or lip-service on how the team is coming around after dropping from third to 12th in five races -- and then to 13th, where he sits now.
Sadler's face and voice reveal urgency. But he knows that there's only so much he can do. He needs to finish well at Richmond -- but he also needs Gordon, Newman and either McMurray or Kenseth to hit a snag, too.
"Some of it is out of our control," he said.
"We got a lot of pressure to do well, but you know what, we're not worried about it," he added. "We're going to go and try to win I've got a good enough team that can do it; will do it. We're going to give it our best shot."
Might as well. There's only one shot left. For two teams, it'll mean a shot at the title. For the other three, there's no consolation prize.
"You've come this far, so you really want to make it," McMurray said. "It doesn't feel good at all to be that close and still miss it. It hurts."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.