Struggling Mayfield insists on staying upbeat
Jeremy Mayfield has a competitive spirit, so you'll understand if he still believes that he's in contention to qualify for NASCAR's 10-driver Chase for the Nextel Cup title.
Nevermind that every driver ranked below him in the standings is already mathematically eliminated from making the Chase. Never mind that, should he finish Sunday's Allstate 400 at or below his average finishing position in races held at the Brickyard this season, he, too, would likely be mathematically eliminated.
If there's a chance, Mayfield chooses to believe. He credits that optimism, in part, for lifting him to title contention the past two seasons. And he will rely on that optimism to get back into contention after a season in which he's ranked 34th, averaging a finish of worse than 27th, hasn't notched a single top 10 and is hearing rumors that he'll be bought out of his final year under contract next season by Evernham Motorsports owner Ray Evernham.
"It's been crazy," Mayfield said, "but I'm still here. I'm still in the car."
That means he still can make a difference. Particularly this weekend, when Mayfield says everything else is irrelevant.
"How do you turn a disappointing season around fast?" he said. "Have a good finish at the Brickyard. The Allstate 400 is that kind of race -- it can turn a season around. We had good results there last year, starting second and finishing fourth. That's the kind of weekend this No. 19 Dodge Dealers/UAW Dodge Charger team needs. We've been close. We haven't lost sight of the objective. We just have to dig in, overcome the adversity and make it happen."
After finishing 10th and ninth, respectively, in the past two seasons' championship races -- having qualified for the Chase each time -- the Co. in Mayfield and Co. underwent dramatic change. Evernham began the year by, a move which began taking shape the previous season, eliminating the formal crew chief position and instituting a team director. While teammate Kasey Kahne, ranked seventh in points, has flourished under the system, working with former Mayfield cohort Kenny Francis, Mayfield has struggled.
He said the gelling process has been slow between him and his team director, Chris Andrews. It wasn't until recently that Mayfield began to feel comfortable in the system. That comfort began to set in in May, but was limited to his immediate support system.
"I feel like we can see the light at the end of the tunnel now and we've got the numbers we like and the balance numbers I like," Mayfield said after the team finished 15th at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a season-high result. "We should be able to run good from here on out. I don't see any hiccups along the way. That's something we've been searching for all year now, and we hit on it the other night. We feel like we definitely know which way we're going now."
His confidence in the crew was offset by displeasure with Evernham, and last month Mayfield criticized Evernham's increased absence during race weekends, citing it as a factor in the teams' descent.
The two have since talked and appeared together at a news conference. Now, Mayfield claims comfort all around, but his finishes haven't changed. He's gone seven straight weekends without a top-20 finish. Only once this year has he managed back-to-back top-20s.
Mayfield said his poor showings will change with time and increased chemistry among the team.
"It's just hard to pull all that together real fast," he said. "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."
Too late to have a great shot at making the Chase, but Mayfield refuses to give up on the year. For one thing, the Brickyard is on deck and, no matter how poor the season is, a win at Indy becomes an instant career highlight. For another, he's must remain focused and prove his talent, because he says, despite hearing the rumors and getting interest from other teams, he believes he can work things out with Evernham.
And, finally, there's that optimism. He's nearly 1,000 points out of first and all but officially eliminated from Chase contention. Still, he insists:
"We're not going to race like [we're out of it this year]. 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."
Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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