- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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Jeremy Mayfield will be content if, a dozen races from now at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway, the media is focusing on some other driver's charge to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Last September, Mayfield's Richmond victory helped him secure a spot in the Chase in the 26th and final event entering the 10-race playoff. It made for great theater not to mention frazzled nerves for Mayfield and his Ray Evernham-owned team.
That's why Mayfield won't mind a bit if someone else fights his way into the top 10 that night. Because he has every intention of being firmly entrenched as a Chase participant beforehand.
Heading into Sunday's race in Michigan, Mayfield is 13th in the standings. But he's just 23 points out of 10th, meaning it's hardly time to panic.
"We're hovering right here around 12th and 13th. We're going to wait until Richmond and do it again," Mayfield said, tongue planted firmly in cheek. "We want to be in solidly in the top 10 before we get there. That's what we're trying to do."
"[In the MBNA RacePoints 400 on June 5], our car wasn't like we wanted it. I could have very easily wrecked or got in trouble, but we sat there and finished 14th. That's what we're doing now. We're taking our bad days and not destroying them. Take your bad days and get the best out of them you can. That's pretty much what we¹ve been doing.
"We're going to continue on what we're doing. We feel like we're close. If we had two or three good runs together that would put us solidly in the top 10. Hopefully we'll be up there and not have to worry about Richmond like we did last time, but I bet somebody will be at Richmond and have to do what we did last year, I promise you. The way the points are and as close as it is, but we don't want to be in that position again. Hopefully we'll be in the top 10."
A 14th-place finish last Sunday at Pocono, the result of an ill-handling race car the second half of the day, dropped Mayfield from 12th to 13th in the standings, but he's still ahead of the likes of Dale Jarrett, Michael Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth.
Asked about the big names that aren't in the top 10, Mayfield admits he's given it a little thought, but not all that much. He's too busy trying to get there himself to worry about whom he's ahead of in the standings.
"The big-name guys ought to be in the top 10 anyway or they wouldn't have big names. That's the way I look at it," Mayfield said. "They should be able to drive their way up there no matter what. As far as us, we just want to get in the top 10 and stay there. We don't want to sit here and worry about it. We are concerned right now. We want to be in it right now. We don't want to wait until later, so we're doing everything we can do to get there. It'll be interesting to see who's in it and who's not this year."
One thing Mayfield doesn't have to concern himself with at the moment is job security. Earlier this month, Evernham announced Mayfield had signed an extension to remain with the team. Evernham says it's his goal to have Mayfield remain with the organization the rest of his career.
The relationship between owner and driver is seemingly strengthened by the day, something that was hardly the case two years ago. In 2003, many in the NASCAR community expected Mayfield to be turned loose after two disappointing years with Evernham Motorsports.
But something clicked that summer. The performance started improving and Mayfield soon had the two-year deal that was set to expire after this season. Mayfield knows a lot has changed since then.
"Ray's been very good to me, helping me mature more as a driver. I told him awhile back I'd hate to be on the outside looking in racing against this team," Mayfield said. "I know where it's going. I know [what] we've got going on and all the good things that are happening for Evernham Motorsports in the future, and I'm certainly glad to be part of that. Like he said, I hope to be here for the rest of my career, and I hope it's for a long time.
"If we can do that and retire here, I'll feel like I had a great career. I'd also like to say that Ray and I started out on a rocky road there for a while and all of a sudden it turned the corner and we became real good friends. We've raced each other, too, on the side. I make him mad every once in awhile, and he makes me mad, but we still continue on with our relationship."
It's a relationship Evernham now savors.
"He's been a big contributor to Evernham Motorsports' growth," Evernham said. "I've got a lot of faith in him. He's a guy that can run the car in the top 10 every week, everywhere we go. He's a consistent candidate for the Chase, and he does a great job."
Mayfield hopes to do even better at Michigan after two semi-disappointing efforts. Of course, he's not alone in that regard as every team steps it up a bit. Plenty of executives from DaimlerChrysler, Ford and Chevrolet will be on hand for a race not far from their corporate offices.
"Michigan can be a good track for us. It's wide and you can run high or low and be competitive," Mayfield said. "We're looking forward to this weekend. This would be a good place to start that string of two or three good runs and move firmly into the top 10."
Many figured Mayfield would start the year with plenty of momentum, even while having plenty to adjust to when the season began.
"We not only had the spoiler and tire rule changes at the start of the season, but we also had the whole body change to the Dodge Charger," Mayfield said. "We had to adapt to a lot of different things and then throw a new crew chief [Richard "Slugger" Labbe] in our deal. We've had two or three big things to work around and adjust to.
"I feel like we've done a good job at that. But we have to continue to get better in all areas pit stops, engines, bodies, every area has to be constantly improving."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.
A new contract has given Jeremy Mayfield job security. Now he wants to put himself safely within the top 10.