- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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CONCORD, N.C. -- Technically, Haas CNC Racing is anything but a new Sprint Cup Series operation. Entering its sixth full-time season, the team is an established part of the landscape -- even if it's done nothing to distinguish itself.
If it weren't for Johnny Sauter's fifth-place run at Richmond last September, the team would be 0-for-219 starts when it comes to finishing in the top five. With just 13 top-10 finishes and zero poles to its credit, you can see why the team that takes to the track this season bears scant resemblance to seasons past.
Veteran Jeff Green was replaced by Jeremy Mayfield for the final four races and Mayfield will be in the No. 70 Chevrolet in 2008. Sauter, the only driver to move a non-qualified team and secure it into the top 35 in owners' points last season, was let go in favor of Scott Riggs.
Riggs will work with veteran crew chief Robert "Bootie" Barker in the No. 66, while Dave Skog, who'd headed the team's engineering program, becomes Mayfield's crew chief. Skog and Mayfield worked together at Evernham Motorsports, and Riggs and Mayfield were even teammates for part of the '06 campaign at what's now Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
It's a new beginning for both drivers, each of whom suffered through miserable seasons last year. Riggs fell out of the top 35 in points and was replaced by Patrick Carpentier for the year's final two races. He posted just one top-10 in 27 starts.
Of course, that was a stellar campaign compared to what Mayfield suffered through as Bill Davis Racing made the switch to Toyota and tried to start a second team around Mayfield. The team was outside the top 35 in points to start the year and things never improved as he made just 13 starts with the team and 17 overall, including his time with Haas.
Last year also marked plenty of change for the team itself, which expanded from the single-car effort it had been in the past. Matt Borland was put in charge of the operation last May when he joined as the team's director of competition after serving as Dale Jarrett's crew chief to open the year.
Haas, the team's owner, hasn't played a role in the day-to-day operations in years and he's now serving a two-year sentence in federal prison for tax fraud. Haas' incarceration isn't expected to have any impact on his race teams, however, meaning it will have every opportunity to make this new beginning work.
Mayfield believes that can happen.
"I feel like we've both got a lot to prove, a lot to gain, but we're going to do it together," Mayfield said. "It's pretty cool, because I feel like we're both pretty humble drivers. I want to see him win his first race, he wants to see me win, and we want to help each other."
Mayfield, who drove for Penske Racing before moving to Evernham's operation in 2002, knows that isn't always the case.
"When you've got [teamwork] going on, there's nobody sitting there going, 'I've got three souvenir trailers and he's [only] got one,'" Mayfield said. "We're not into that. We're into racing and running good and helping each other."
Riggs said he's on the same page as Mayfield when it comes down to what can make a team successful. While Haas might not have a four-car team like Hendrick Motorsports, it gets its engines and chassis from that organization and also has an engineering alliance with what last year was the sport's top team.
Jeremy and myself are in a position that we're so hungry to prove ourselves.
-- Scott Riggs
It will be up to the drivers, in conjunction with Borland and the crew chiefs, to make all of the resources into something successful instead of just another two-car team trying to survive against the sport's powerhouses.
"Jeremy and myself are in a position that we're so hungry to prove ourselves," Riggs said. "We've been in a lot of different situations the last couple of years, but I think right now we're both in the same mindset and same focus aspect of it. We know how it needs to be and feel like we can both lead the teams by being two guys that work together [with] one organization and two cars -- not two teams."
Borland, who won 12 races at Penske as Ryan Newman's crew chief, admits last year wasn't a lot of fun. Now, though, he's trying to spend more time with his family when he's not focusing on getting Haas CNC Racing headed on the right road after years of mediocrity.
"I'm enjoying the job. It's fun to step back from the crew chiefing end and watch the stress level on some other people build," Borland said with a smile. "It's been a fun new set of challenges to deal with -- a new challenge as far as trying to get an organization to the next level."
Borland, though, doesn't think he has anything to prove.
"I just like working on challenges, trying to make things better," Borland said. "You do that no matter what you're doing. I'm trying to enjoy the family a little more and not just being so stressed out with being at a certain spot on a time chart that you have to be as a crew chief. You live and die by that time sheet."
Both drivers enter the season inside the top 35 in points, meaning they've got five races to build a foundation for the rest of the season.
Riggs isn't shy when asked what's at stake, not just for himself, but seemingly everyone with the team.
"It's a vital year for me and Jeremy. I think it's a vital year for Haas in general," Riggs said. "I think that Haas Racing is at a point where they're going to push forward and be successful, or they're going to wipe the whole slate clean.
"I think they've done a lot of wiping and a lot of changing in people. But I think they did a smart move with Matt being the one to come in and do that evaluation and figure out who needs to be changed, where the changes need to be made, where the team needs to be stronger, where the team needs more help or less help. It's good to have someone like Matt who doesn't have to focus on the day-to-day operations of the crew chief so he can focus on the competition side as a whole."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
2008 is a brand-new beginning for Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield, who hope to jump-start struggling Haas CNC Racing and take it to another level, writes Mark Ashenfelter.