- Jerry Bonkowski, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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It may not be Owensboro, Ky., but Pocono Raceway in Pennsylvania has become like a home away from home for Jeremy Mayfield.
In his first season as the No. 1 driver for Evernham Motorsports following the semi-retirement of Bill Elliott at the end of last season, Mayfield has gradually gotten more comfortable in his role as the team's expected top dog. He's even comfortable helping Elliott to mentor rookie sensation Kasey Kahne.
But now it's time for Mayfield to do something for himself at his adopted home of Pocono. Currently in 15th place in the Nextel Cup standings after the first 13 races, an even 100 points out of the top-10 (and 466 behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Mayfield hopes to build upon his past success there for Sunday's Pocono 500 in an effort to make a run for the final 10-race Chase for the Championship.
"At this point in the season, we're racing like there's no tomorrow," said Mayfield, who is 18 positions higher in the standings than he was at this point last season. "We're running hard every week. I think Dover (last week) is a good example -- we got wrecked and still came home eighth.
"We are focused on being in the deal come September, but we aren't points racing. When you sit back and go points racing, you're likely to get in more trouble than if you went out and raced hard. So, we're going all out.
"If we can just get in, I don't care if we're 399 within the leader (the top 10 cars have to be 400 points within the leader to qualify for the Chase). If we can just get in it's going to be big because the last 10 races are on our style of racetracks. We're counting on being there."
The driver of the No. 19 Dodge certainly has history on his side this weekend. Pocono was the site of his first Cup victory, back in 1998 and in his 125th career Cup start, when he dueled the late Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip, taking the lead for good with 20 laps to go and never looking back. Mayfield returned to Victory Lane two years later, bouncing back from a 22nd-place qualifying effort, to become only the eighth active driver in Cup competition to win twice at the venerable 2.5-mile tri-oval nestled in the Pocono Mountains.
"That first win is definitely the highlight of my career," Mayfield said.
And with Sunday being his 20th career start at Pocono, where he not only has two wins but also three top-five and seven top-10 finishes, Mayfield is ready to make some more history.
"I'm not sure what it is," he said when asked what makes Pocono so special and successful for him. "It's one of those places that early in my career I adapted to real quick. I like going there. I like racing there. It seems like my confidence level is up every time I walk into the gate. It's just one of the places I've always run decent at, but I've had some bad runs there, too. I'm either real good or real bad, but it's definitely a place I like."
Sunday's race should be an interesting study for Mayfield as well as the rest of the Evernham organization. He'll be driving his first Evernham-built chassis in the grueling 200-lap, 500-mile event.
"They've done a lot of testing on it, and Kasey ran it in the All-Star race and Bill has run it several times," Mayfield said. "It looks great and it's the product of a lot of great ideas. There's a lot of engineering behind it. The benefit of doing the chassis program in-house is that you can build things the way you want them. You can make the cars really consistent. The guys at the shop have done a great job of this -- every Dodge I get in feels the same and drives the same. Having an in-house chassis program takes this team to the next level up."
Mayfield still feels a tinge of disappointment from last Sunday's race at Dover, Del., but at the same time is using it as motivation coming into one of his favorite racetracks on the circuit.
At Dover, Mayfield started from the pole with a track qualifying record of 161.522 mph, led the race four separate times for a total of 78 laps, but was collected in a 19-car crash later in the race. Still, his team worked a near-miracle in the pits repairing Mayfield's Dodge while the race was stopped under red flag conditions, and he was able to come back out and salvage a respectable eighth-place finish.
"What helped us get over it was we still came out of it with a top-10," Mayfield said. "After all the stuff that happened we still finished eighth, and I think if that hadn't happened it would have been devastating. We ran good and still finished in the top-10 and we'll go on to next week."
For much of his career, Mayfield has played second fiddle to drivers like Rusty Wallace (when Mayfield was with Penske Racing) and Elliott (at Evernham Motorsports). Now he's Numero Uno -- but he hasn't forgotten the lessons he learned from his mentors, as he's trying to impart some of his knowledge upon Kahne. Obviously, Kahne is listening quite well: he's currently 12th in the standings, 28 points and three places ahead of Mayfield.
"I learned a lot of things from Rusty and a ton of things from Bill Elliott," Mayfield said. "Bill is a great teammate. Rusty was a great teammate. I've got a lot of respect for Rusty and what he's done. I hope one day all of that will pay off, and I think it will, whether it's me being able to translate it to Kasey or my own team or whatever. I'm hoping the experience I've gotten in that area will help both of us.
"I've seen a lot of different things with different race teams. I feel like I know it's an important role for me to be able to help, to be the conduit or bond the chemistry together with both race teams, with not only my team but with Kasey's team. The more the team sees the two drivers talking and communicating well with each other, it trickles down and it trickles out. It's just one of those things I know I've got a lot of responsibility as far as helping both of these race teams.
"I think right now it's as good or the best it's ever been. For me, it's certainly the best situation I've ever been in. Ray has done an unbelievable job as an owner, putting the right people in the right places to let the chemistry form. He's very good at that. He's certainly got a lot of talent for that, and I have a lot of respect for him doing that. The chemistry could not be better right now."
Even though he's ranked a respectable 15th, Mayfield knows he could be a lot higher in the standings. Following his best finish thus far this season, runner-up at Atlanta in this season's fourth race, Mayfield went into a nosedive, with just one top-10 finish (ninth at Darlington) in his next seven starts.
But while he could be higher, that doesn't mean Mayfield is not going to stop fighting. His mantra has become "losers quit when they get tired; winners quit when they win."
"I kind of live by that," Mayfield said. "There's a lot of little things you gather over the years from your experiences, and I believe in fighting until the end. We've done that every time. We've shown that a lot with this team this year."
Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.
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