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Archive for Monday, September 13, 2004

Mayfield races into title chase

NASCAR driver ended a four-year drought to advance to championship series

September 13, 2004

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— It was win and in for Jeremy Mayfield, who couldn't hide his excitement when NASCAR chairman Brian France stopped to congratulate him on racing his way into the playoffs

"Man, I love your new points system," Mayfield gushed. "You couldn't have come up with anything better than this."

One of the first things France did upon taking over as NASCAR's chairman was shake up the points system the series had used since 1975. The new format created a 10-race playoff system for the top 10 drivers in the standings.

The result is a wide-open chase that will give Mayfield a chance at his first title. It's a position he never would have been in under the old system, which rewarded consistency but made for lackluster championship chases with few real challenges over the stretch run.

Now, Mayfield clearly is in the hunt, although he had to earn the right to get in. Mayfield ended a four-year winless drought Saturday night with a victory at Richmond International Raceway.

He had gone into the Chevrolet 400 in 14th place in the standings and a mind-set that a victory was the only way he would crack the top 10.

The moment he crossed the finish line, he officially was in, using the win to jump five spots in the standings to ninth. NASCAR now has reset the points totals of the top 10, and Mayfield heads into the 10-race chase to the title 40 points behind leader Jeff Gordon.

"I couldn't see us getting in without winning the thing," Mayfield said. "We were in trouble. We had to win ... we weren't going to accept anything else."

But was a victory seriously in reach for a driver who last visited Victory Lane on June 19, 2000 -- a span of 142 races?

Mayfield infamously bumped the late Dale Earnhardt out of his way on the final lap to win at Pocono that day, and Earnhardt congratulated him with a one-finger salute as he passed him on the cool-down lap.

The years since then have been a series of ups and downs for Mayfield.

He split with car owner Roger Penske midway through the 2001 season and spent the end of the year out of work. With no job, he stayed away from the garage area each week, and his absence fueled gossip and speculation about his personal life and his career.

Then car owner Ray Evernham opened up a seat for him in his fleet of Dodges, and Mayfield again had a chance to revive his career.

But the results were mixed, and Mayfield was rumored to be on his way out at Evernham this time last year.

Instead, they tightened up the program and Mayfield has been on a rise all year: He's got two runner-up finishes and 10 top 10s.

But the inconsistency that had kept Mayfield from ever being a contender in the early part of his career still plagued him and he found himself outside the top 10 this week after three consecutive mediocre performances.

With just one race to go before the playoff field was set, the pressure was clearly on.

His team was prepared upon its arrival in Richmond, qualifying seventh and wasting little time in moving toward the front. He ended up leading a race-high 151 laps, but needed Kurt Busch to run out of gas eight laps from the end to retake the lead and lock himself into the chase.

Mayfield, who considers himself a bit of a hard-luck racer, couldn't believe his good fortune.

"I couldn't believe it because the way my luck's been, I thought no way he's going to run out," Mayfield said. "When he did, I said, 'This can't be true, now it's my turn to cut a tire or something."'

It wasn't all good luck for the rest of the contenders, though.

Kasey Kahne, Mayfield's rookie teammate, struggled all night and dropped out of the top 10 after his 12th-place finish.

Jamie McMurray had late engine problems that prohibited him from racing for the critical few positions he needed to crack into the top 10. He finished the race ninth, and left Richmond 11th in the standings -- the first driver shut out of the chase.

In a cruel twist of fate, though, McMurray ended up just 15 points out of 10th place and his team couldn't help but look to the 25 points NASCAR docked them earlier this year when his car failed a pre-race inspection at Bristol.

Tony Stewart had the same infraction before McMurray, but his team was not docked any points.

"Tony Stewart had the same deal and they didn't take and points away from him," team co-owner Felix Sabates complained. "Why? I don't know why. All I know is we lost by 25 points. NASCAR took it away from us."

Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Dale Jarrett also failed to race their way in.

And Ryan Newman made it -- just barely.

The pole-sitter fell two laps down early in the race on an ill-timed pit stop, then saw his gas tank running low on fuel late in the race. As his team frantically crunched numbers to see where they were in the standings, Newman held his breath and hoped his Dodge would make it to the end.

He finished -- in 20th place -- and took the 10th and final spot in the standings.

"We won the battle, but we haven't won the war," he said. "We'll get all our guns polished for the last 10 races and do what we have to do as a team to stay focused."

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