As recently as just a few weeks ago, few people would have believed that we'd we going into the 2012 Chase without the presence of Roush Fenway Racing's Carl Edwards and Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch among the contenders.
But even before the final regular season race got underway at Richmond last weekend, the writing was on the wall for Edwards, and only a last-gasp victory could have changed the gloomy prognosis for last year's Cup runner-up. In the end, an anonymous run to 17th place rather summed up his year so far.
"Yeah, this isn't about one race," Edwards said on Sunday, shrugging off the relevance of the Richmond result. "It is 26 races and we just let too many points get away for a bunch of different reasons. There was a lot of luck involved and everyone tried really hard."
At least now the Chase is no longer hanging over everyone's heads means that the remainder of the season becomes relatively straightforward: "It makes it pretty simple for the last 10. We just go race as hard as we can. That has been kind of fun lately to do that," he said. "But man, I don't know, it is going to be wild to not be in the championship hunt. It won't be as much fun at all."
Edward accepts that, painful as it is, his role now becomes that of team player helping Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth in their title campaigns as much as he's able to.
"Just to be the best teammate I can be and to help them develop any setups they can and help them during practice," Edwards said of his intentions over the remainder of the season. "There isn't much I can do on the race track once the race starts, but before the race starts I can help.
"We will just go try to build the best team we can for next year and try to make sure a Ford wins this championship," he added.
By contrast, Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch went to Richmond with reasonable hopes of squeaking through into the Chase, despite what had been by his standards a mediocre season so far. Despite that, his one win of the season so far had come at Richmond and that had put him at the front of the battle for the second "most wins" wildcard ahead of Jeff Gordon. Assuming that Gordon didn't win last weekend's race, all Busch had to do was finish close to his rival and the Chase spot was his.
Instead, it all went wrong - even more galling coming at a track that it one of the driver's personal favourites and which has given him considerable success in the past. But a miscall on the pit strategy and a problem with a missing lugnut dropped Busch down the order, and when the chequered flag dropped Busch was in 16th place - 14 behind Gordon. That swung the wildcard away from Busch, leaving him clearly gutted.