BRISTOL, Tenn. — When Carl Edwards was paying his bills as a substitute teacher in Columbia , hoping and praying he'd someday make it into NASCAR, he pictured himself racing at Bristol Motor Speedway.
So after scoring his first career victory Saturday night at the Bristol bullring, Edwards felt like he was living a dream.
"It's such a huge win because it's Bristol. It's a short track. It's really tough. It's 500 laps. It's grueling," he said. "This is what I always thought of as a Nextel Cup race. This is what it's about.
"A Saturday night at a really tough track that's historic. I guess to me, if you win at a track like this, it feels really good as a driver."
This one certainly did for Edwards, who clinched a spot in the Chase for the championship while picking up another 10 bonus points to use in his pursuit of the Nextel Cup title.
Edwards passed Kasey Kahne for the lead with 166 laps to go and wasn't challenged the rest of the way as he drove to his second victory of the season. He beat Kahne to the line by 1.405 seconds, then did his trademark backflip on the finish line to celebrate.
"This is the biggest win of my career," said Edwards, who has six career victories. "It means the world to win this race."
Edwards made the Chase and finished third in the standings in 2005 but failed to make the field last season. He was clearly thrilled to be assured a spot among the top 12 drivers who will run for this season's Nextel Cup title.
"We're back," Edwards declared.
The Chase field will be seeded based on the bonus points earned through "regular season" victories. Edwards now has 20 points, which would tie him with Kurt Busch for third place when the Chase for the championship begins Sept. 16 in New Hampshire.
Only Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson (four wins each) and Tony Stewart (three) have more.
Clint Bowyer finished third to move closer to his first berth in the Chase.
"I am not going to count on that quite yet, not 'til it's over," Bowyer said.
Stewart was fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fifth. Busch, Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle rounded out the top 10.
The race to make the Chase didn't change, as Kurt Busch is still holding down the 12th and final position with two races to go.
"We're running more consistent, and that's what it takes if you want to be a championship contender," said Busch, who won Tuesday's rain-postponed race in Michigan. "But for us, we still have to get into the Chase.
"We're not locked in, so we're not losing focus with two more races."
Earnhardt, despite a strong run, gained only five points and is 158 points back.
"I want to win. If I can't make the Chase, I want to win a race," Earnhardt said. "When we don't make (the Chase) everybody makes a big deal over it _ they talk about it pre-race and talk about it postrace. It's a bummer when you see that and watch that. You're just trying to let it go under the radar when you can't get it done."
Newman is 14th in the standings, but hasn't given up making the Chase just yet.
"We still have a shot at it," he said. "Mathematically, we still have a chance. We're just trying to give it our best shot, each and every lap. That's good enough in my eyes _ whether it's good enough to make the top 12, we'll see."
Kahne started from the pole and was looking for his second win in as many nights. He won Friday night's Busch Series event, and it looked early as if he would win again Saturday. He led 305 of the first 500 laps.
But after losing his battle for the lead with Edwards, he never challenged again. Regardless, the runner-up finish was outstanding for Kahne, who is winless this season and stuck in a horrendous slump.
"To go into a season and think you are going to run well, and then you don't ... this feels good," he said. "We haven't had a top-five since last year."
It was the first Nextel Cup race on Bristol's repaved race track, and the new concrete contributed to thrilling races for the Truck Series and Busch Series earlier in the week. Everyone expected the same results for the Cup event, but it was slow in developing as the race began with 126 uneventful parade laps.
Then Johnny Sauter spun into the wall to bring out the first caution, and Kahne had to use a spectacular move to avoid plowing into him as he passed by the accident scene.
Racing soon resumed until Denny Hamlin's motor exploded in a puff of white smoke to bring out the second caution. Hamlin, a threat to win here in March, thought he could have contended had his engine not failed. Regardless, he was confident of his championship hopes.
"It was a rocketship all day," he said. "The other 11 Chase guys are going to have to deal with us when it's all said and done."
The racing finally heated up from there, as a frustrated Jimmie Johnson nudged the lapped car of Aric Almirola as he tried to pass. It sent Almirola into A.J. Allmendinger and brought out the third caution of the race.
A sense of urgency seemed to soon take over, as drivers turned it up a notch and began racing side-by-side for position. It set up a fabulous chase between Edwards, Earnhardt and Kahne with 166 laps to go, as the three jockeyed for the lead.
They went inside and out in a three-wide battle for the lead that was hampered by Michael Waltrip's lapped car. Edwards finally prevailed, taking Earnhardt with him as they sliced past Kahne.
Edwards then pulled far away and wasn't challenged over five restarts in the final 125 laps.
"Those restarts took about 10 years off my life," Edwards joked. "Winning here at Bristol is everybody's dream. This is the night race at Bristol, 500 laps, and we won it.
"I am living a dream. I think every short-track racer out there dreams about this."