Jeremy Mayfield has had the consistent year in his 2005 campaign that he's wanted for so long. Come to find out, that's not going to be good enough in today's NASCAR.
Mayfield rode a 14.3 average finish through 26 races into the playoffs and began the 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup in eighth place. Four races later, he's pretty much standing still, averaging a 13.25 finish. Although that was good enough to make the cut, it's not going to cut it against the top 10 drivers in the sport.
"We're still in good position [to make a run for the top]," Mayfield said. "As long as we stay out of trouble and get a couple of good finishes down the stretch, it's not over."
Since arriving at Evernham Motorsports, Mayfield was convinced that he was going to become a championship contender. Steady improvement was his motto, and it's the game plan he's followed. Last season, he made NASCAR's innaugural Chase, but disaster struck and he finished the year in 10th.
"Just making the Chase wasn't enough," Mayfield said after. "This team is about improvement and we've grown into a championship team now. Now, we need to make the Chase and it can't stop there."
This season, hoping not to repeat his previous demise, he praised his team after finishing 16th in the first Chase race, and seventh and 14th in the following two weeks.
The silver lining around the 16th was that Mayfield came out of the gates slow last year in the Chase. The seventh was a solid top-10. And though he fell short of another top-10 at Talladega, Ala., the fact that he finished was a big deal in a race that's all about survival. Four other Chase contenders had worse days, to boot.
"We made it," Mayfield said after his Talladega run. "That's why I'm not feeling too bad about it. I'm a little disappointed in the way we ran. The car just wasn't really fast all weekend. We didn't qualify that good. We didn't run well in practice. We didn't run well in the race. But, we made it through and that's the main thing. Finishing at Talladega is what counts."
Still, all of that only left him in eighth place.
"We've got to go out there with a little more momentum than we got here," he said.
The Kentucky native heads to Lowe's Motor Speedway needing a big turnaround now. He's dropped to ninth, 157 points out, after a 16th-place run at Kansas. Once again, though, Mayfield was able to take something positive away from another mediocre result.
"We had a better car than the finish indicates," Mayfield said. "We ran in the top five throughout the first half of the race."
The key is finishing there. Now, it's going to take a serious bid -- just top-fives or victories from here on out.
"We set a game plan to win races," Mayfield said earlier about his Chase strategy. "And if we can't win every race we want to take as many points and positions as possible."
Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.