- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Jeremy Mayfield sees the light at the end of the tunnel. And after the Nextel All-Star Challenge, he's hopeful that it's not just a locomotive coming the opposite way to crush the hopes of his Evernham Motorsports operation.
But that wouldn't be all that shocking considering the way Mayfield's season has gone thus far. He's sitting 34th in points after 11 races and is 415 points behind 10th-place Jeff Burton heading into the Coca-Cola 600.
In other words, a third-straight appearance in the Chase for the Nextel Cup is but a pipe dream at this point. Mayfield's saying all the right things, but a more realistic goal simply will be turning his season around.
He thinks that's possible. And while he wasn't all that great in the Challenge before getting caught up in a wreck in the second segment, Mayfield thinks the event sparked something.
"If you'd seen the way the weekend went and had been riding with me and knew just how good that car drove, you'd understand," Mayfield says to those who would question him based on the Challenge. "You look at the results and don't see a turnaround there, but I'm sitting in the car. I know if they give me the same feel I had the other night, we're going to win a bunch of races."
Little has gone right for a driver who has yet to post even one top-10 finish this year. Mayfield said there's been no one area to blame. It's not simply the fault of himself, team director Chris Andrews or owner Ray Evernham.
"It's all of us in general. We haven't got the chemistry yet up until last Saturday night, actually," Mayfield said. "We've been struggling all year and then we started clicking the last couple of weeks. Saturday night was just a great night for us.
"Everything I was communicating to Chris he was able to fix, and I think we're starting to understand each other. I think that's been the biggest problem. We weren't getting the best out of our equipment because we were new to each other and the team was new. It's just hard to pull all that together real fast. Sometimes it happens quick when you put a new team together and they run real good right off the bat, but not very often. We feel like we're just now starting that turnaround."
With Dover, Pocono and Michigan coming up after the 600, Mayfield will be heading to a pair of tracks where he's won, and he's run well at Dover in the past. If things truly are coming together, he'll have the perfect opportunity to show that once the calendar hits June.
At this point, he knows nothing short of winning will suffice. And he knows even a few wins only will salvage "a fair season." But he's not waiting until June, despite the fact the car wrecked in the Challenge was the one the team hoped to use this weekend.
June, though, might really be the time to shine.
"I feel like when we go to Dover it's going to be a great place for us. So is Pocono and Michigan," Mayfield said. "A lot of good tracks are coming up that I feel we're going to be good at, and knowing what we know now, I think we're going to be in good shape at all those places.
"It's a shame we wrecked that car because it was going to be good [in the 600], but I've got a lot of confidence in all our cars. We're not hooked on one car. They've all pretty much got the same wind-tunnel numbers. We're going to race them and stay on schedule of what our car list is. If we win the 600, I'm sure we'll turn around and take it the following week and keep on racing that one. If we don't, we've got a whole stable full of cars we can race."
If the team has indeed found something, maybe the rest of the year can be salvaged. At this point, though, even Mayfield is realistic enough to know the Chase isn't on the horizon. But that doesn't keep him from saying all the right things.
Throwing in the towel now would be a sign to his team that he'd quit on the season, and that's when things could easily take a true turn for the worst.
"I wouldn't assume that quite yet," Mayfield said when asked if he's out of it. "You never know. We're not going down until it's over. By looking at the way the points are now, you could easily count us out, and I wouldn't blame anybody if they did. We're not going to race like that. We are going to let it all hang out, which we've been doing, but we're going to turn up the wick a little bit and see what happens.
"I think it would be cool if we could come back and be a contender for getting in the Chase, or even getting back in the top 15 would be a huge accomplishment. I'm not going to say we're going to be in it, but we're not going to give up. I can tell you that."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com