Commentary

Drivers don't know what to think now

Updated: July 3, 2009, 4:55 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- "I make my livelihood by racing in NASCAR events. Racing is my life and career. However, I am not willing to put my life at risk driving a racecar on a NASCAR track with drivers testing positive for drugs that diminish their capacity to drive a racecar.

"If drivers are on the track in violation of NASCAR's substance abuse policy, it presents serious questions as to whether or not it makes sense to put my life at risk."

Jeff Gordon said this in an affidavit signed May 29, 2009. It was part of NASCAR's case that Sprint Cup driver Jeremy Mayfield, at the time suspended indefinitely for violating the sport's substance-abuse policy, should not be allowed back on the track.

On Wednesday, a federal judge in Charlotte, N.C., issued a temporary injunction lifting the suspension. He did it because, according to his statement, the harm to Mayfield significantly outweighed the harm to NASCAR.

In other words, the financial loss for Mayfield not being able to race was more than the potential physical danger for drivers or spectators with him on the track.

He didn't rule that Mayfield's positive test for methamphetamines, which NASCAR attorneys argued was substantiated four times between Aegis Laboratory and Medtox, was wrong.

He just ruled that Mayfield should be allowed to race, which likely will happen next weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, since he was unable to secure a ride this weekend at Daytona International Speedway.

Which brings us to the question:

Will Gordon, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson, and Robby Gordon, who all signed the above affidavit, compete against someone who has tested positive for an illegal drug?

The answer is an overwhelming yes.

But it's not an easy answer. It's downright confusing for a lot of drivers. Just follow this conversation between myself and Gordon behind his hauler Thursday, beginning with a reminder of his affidavit.

"I never said anything about Jeremy Mayfield, that I didn't want to be on the track with Jeremy Mayfield," he said. "At this point, right now I signed something that I said I would not want to be on the track with someone that tested positive, that positively had drugs in their system.

"I didn't have any issues with Jeremy on the track prior to all of this going on. I don't think that will change if he's out there on the track anytime soon."

Then I reminded the four-time Cup champion that the judge's decision didn't change the fact that Mayfield tested positive for methamphetamines.

"A lab has said that," Gordon said.

Told that two laboratories and NASCAR had said that, Gordon replied, "It's been great answering your questions."

"I have no idea," he added. "I'm so confused right now at the whole thing. I'm going to let it all play out. I'll be honest, I haven't followed it enough to know what's going on. Leave me out of it."

It is confusing.

Or as Johnson said, "It's just a confusing mess right now."

Hopefully, all of this leads to a test process that eliminates the chances of a mistake or a loophole that would allow a guilty party to escape on a technicality.

I'm not saying which happened here. But Judge Graham Mullen's decision opened the door that there are flaws, and that's not good for anybody.

It left Gordon and Johnson, two of the more respected drivers in the garage, at least giving the appearance of backtracking from sworn statements. If they truly believe in NASCAR's test policy, and they believe the governing body when it says Mayfield tested positive for an illegal drug, then they shouldn't compete against him.

Of course, we all know that won't happen. They would would give up the points they would lose in the standings for this cause -- or probably any other.

They are here to race. Unless they are suspended, that's what they'll do.

"It's hard to know with all that has gone on the last few months what is what," Johnson said. "It's more confusing every day. If guys are sober on the track, that's all we're after.

"That's the reason I signed the affidavit, was just supporting the fact that drivers wanted a drug policy in place, and we got it."

Neither driver had to expect Mayfield would get the injunction, at least not to the point it might make them eat their words.

Johnson referred to this as a bump in the road.

It's really a mountain, one that will affect drug testing in all sports moving forward. Athletes will say, "If Mayfield got a reprieve, maybe I can."

"The last thing you want to do is have a false positive on someone," Johnson said. "I don't even know where to start. You hear one rumor that it's one way, one it's the other way. Now the next thing you know he's coming back to the racetrack.

"It makes you believe that maybe there is something wrong with the system. Then you hear the rumors. It's just a confusing mess right now."

When he comes back, Mayfield will be under mandatory testing instead of random. NASCAR can test him every day, every hour, if it wants.

The bad news is that it takes four days to complete the test, according to NASCAR. Even if they narrowed that to two days, which the judge seemed to think was possible, it's too long.

Say Mayfield was tested Thursday and the results were back before Saturday night's race. He already would have been on the track for practice and qualifying.

[+] EnlargeJeff Burton
AP Photo/Terry RennaJeff Burton said NASCAR needs to figure out how to maintain an unassailable drug-testing policy.

"One thing I disagree with the judge on, my safety is important to me," Jeff Burton said. "If there is an instant test available, then the judge is 100 percent right [to let Mayfield back]. There is no instant test.

"He potentially put my safety in jeopardy by that decision. The other decision puts Jeremy's career in jeopardy. So what do you do?"

Burton had actually predicted this might wind up in court when the suspension was handed out May 9.

"You can disagree with it, but you have to respect and abide by it," he said. "I believe if I was in Jeremy's position, I wouldn't hesitate to question it. Why not? I wish we weren't in this situation, but we are."

And as Burton reminded, the judge didn't say Mayfield's test results were wrong, the point I tried to make with Gordon.

"Most people believe in the results of drug testing," Burton said. "When you really start looking into it, there's very few cases that you can go back and say the test was inaccurate.

"We have to look at the policy and figure out how it cannot be questioned again."

Meanwhile, drivers will be on the track with another driver that has tested positive for methamphetamines unless NASCAR appeals the injunction and wins. That is a dilemma most probably hoped wouldn't happen.

Ryan Newman was honest enough to admit that if he lined up beside Mayfield, he would question his safety. But he never said he wouldn't line up beside him.

"People make mistakes," he said. "I just hope the judge didn't make one."

Newman reminded us all this is a serious issue, although some made light of it. Kasey Kahne and Kyle Busch said they seldom are around Mayfield on the track.

"He's at one end, and I'm at the other," Kahne said.

But at some point, if you're that much better than the other driver, you're going to have to pass him.

The bottom line, drivers aren't going to worry about Mayfield if and when he returns. They'll just do what they do best: race hard.

"I've raced against some guys out there I'm 100 percent positive they weren't on anything," Gordon said. "And I was still nervous racing against them."

He just never signed an affidavit saying he didn't want to.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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