Kyle Busch hadn't won a race since he visited Watkins Glen last August. Jeff Gordon hadn't been in victory lane in more than a year.
But as satisfied as those drivers and their teams were to receive trophies and pose for pictures after their victories in Thursday's Daytona 500 qualifying races, they had nothing on Jeremy Mayfield and Scott Riggs.
Both weren't even part of a race team about a month ago. On Sunday they'll be in the Great American Race.
Mayfield and Riggs, both veteran drivers for start-up teams, raced their way in to the Daytona 500.
"We're elated," said the 38-year-old Riggs, who six weeks ago decided to drive for Tommy Baldwin Racing, a team started by the former crew chief at Bill Davis Racing after that entity ceased operations. "You go to the shop, guys are just volunteers, passionate about racing -- they're addicted to the racing bug that we are all addicted to. They put their heart and soul into it from faith in Tommy, the whole organization."
In each 60-lap qualifying race, two drivers are able to race their way into the Daytona 500. Tony Stewart took one spot in the first race when he finished second to Gordon. Riggs, who was strong all afternoon, took the other spot by finishing eighth.
In the second race, Busch took the checkered flag while Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger each choked back tears after their ninth- and 10th-place finishes, respectively.
"Twenty-three days ago we didn't even have a race team," said the 39-year-old Mayfield, who raced sparingly over the last two years and said he has some volunteers among the crew members on his self-owned No. 41 Toyota. "This is an emotional day for me and this is why I wanted to comeback. It's pretty awesome."
Allmendinger, a third-year driver who failed to make the Daytona 500 the last two years, has a part-time deal with Richard Petty Motorsports.
"I haven't slept well for about a week and a half now," said Allmendinger. "This whole team deserved it for how hard they've worked the last few weeks after we put this program together. I feel like there was more pressure on my shoulders than there has ever been."
The top 35 in last year's owner's points were guaranteed spots in Sunday's 43-car field. Thirteen drivers who tried to make the race couldn't do it. Here's who did: Stewart (second in the first race), Riggs, Mayfield and Allmendinger raced their way in Thursday. The next three spots, awarded according to qualifying speed, went to Bill Elliott, Travis Kvapil and Regan Smith. The 43rd spot went to Terry Labonte, who was able to claim a provisional start because he is a former series champion.
Elliott and Kvapil, like Stewart, had already ensured a place in Sunday's race because they had the three best qualifying speeds Sunday. When Stewart, a driver-owner this season in his No. 14 Chevrolet, raced his way in, that opened up a spot for the next-best qualifying time. That was Smith, the upstate New York native who hails from the Syracuse-area town of Cato, who had his spot assured before he started the second race (in which he finished 16th).
Stewart, who was third in last weekend's Bud Shootout, is so far performing as a driver-owner the same way he did with one of the sport's finest outfits in Joe Gibbs Racing. Stewart's replacement at Gibbs in the orange No. 20, 18-year-old rising star Joey Logano, came on late to finish an impressive fourth.
Both were part of an exciting finish in which Gordon assumed the lead with four laps to go and went back-and-forth with Stewart. Stewart took the lead only to have Gordon take it back for his first win since October 2007 -- even though the nonpoints event does not count toward his official win total.
"Who says we can't win?" Gordon said after hopping out of his car.
Second-race pole-sitter Mark Martin, who earned his front-row starting position in qualifying, led 36 laps but was ganged up on by two Gibbs buddies with five laps to go. Denny Hamlin stuck the nose of his No. 11 in the back of Busch's No. 18 down the backstretch and they both blew by Martin on the inside entering Turn Three.
"From where we ended last year," Busch said, "it was pretty cool to start off the season this way."