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Rebound ride for Mayfield

The three-time race winner has a top-line ride after being fired last season.

By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 9, 2002

DAYTONA BEACH -- Jeremy Mayfield is antsy. Shifting from foot to foot. Hands in and out of pockets. Words spilling out faster than his mouth can form them.

He can't wait.

Just can't wait.

Really can't wait.

It has been nearly five months since Mayfield raced a Winston Cup car. So, while everyone else on the circuit can't believe it already is time to go racing again, Mayfield is thrilled to be back at the track.

Today, he takes his first official lap in his new ride, the No. 19 Dodge, during pole qualifying for the Daytona 500. Drivers with the two fastest times at Daytona International Speedway's 2.5-mile tri-oval start from the front row for the Feb. 17 race.

Could anyone be in a bigger hurry than Mayfield?

"Man, I'm excited," said Mayfield, 32. "I'm probably the most excited driver here, from what I've seen, because I really want to race. I can remember the last couple years it seemed like there was no offseason. But now I've had time off and I'm ready to go."

Mayfield was released in October after three-plus seasons driving the No. 12 Ford for Penske Racing South.

He won three races and six poles at Penske, but in 2001 became dismayed with what he perceived to be management's lack of commitment to his team. Mayfield aired his complaints publicly and soon got what he wanted.

His freedom.

The key player in NASCAR's annual silly season, Mayfield landed at Evernham Motorsports, which fielded cars for veteran Bill Elliott and rookie Casey Atwood in 2001, its first season.

Evernham wanted a more experienced driver in the No. 19, which he thought was ready to win races. Not wanting to lose Atwood's potential, he purchased a share of the No. 7 Ultra Motorsports team as a way to keep Atwood in the fold. Elliott, who enjoyed a resurgence with his first victory in more than seven years, remains in the No. 9.

"Jeremy is certainly a guy who can help our organization as a whole," Evernham said. "Does that mean the No. 19 team is ready to compete for championships? No, but it's another step.

"He can help this program get ready. You have to constantly be changing people as the levels change. Jeremy is one of the tools we need to get closer to our goals. ... But there should be no reason the 19 car can't go to Victory Lane."

Five years ago, Mayfield was among NASCAR's hottest young drivers. A native of Owensboro, Ky., who grew up idolizing three-time Winston Cup champion Darrell Waltrip, Mayfield had all the makings of a star: racing skill, quick wit and determination.

His best season came in 1998, when Michael Kranefuss still owned a share of the No. 12 team with Penske. Mayfield got his first win and finished seventh in the standings with 12 top fives and 16 top 10s. Though he won twice in 2000, Mayfield has not cracked the top 10 in points since '98.

His potential remains untapped.

If Evernham can do for Mayfield what he did as crew chief for Jeff Gordon -- provide fast race cars, preach patience and instill confidence -- Mayfield could be the surprise of the season.

"We all know that anything Ray has been involved in has been successful," said Mayfield, who had the seventh-fastest speed overall in January testing at Daytona at 183.221 mph.

"Evernham Motorsports is definitely an awesome team. I look at our resources and it's unbelievable. I'm really excited about the chances we have with this team and Ray. Everybody involved in this program has been outstanding for me. It has really boosted my confidence."

Mayfield stayed away from the track at the end of 2001, not wanting to discuss his deal with Evernham before it became official. Meanwhile, much was made of the success Mike Wallace had running up front in several races as an interim driver in the No. 12. The team ultimately folded but the implication, intentional or otherwise, was the problem might have been Mayfield.

As a result, Mayfield is on a mission in 2002.

"I want it more right now than I've ever wanted it in my whole career," Mayfield said. "This is the best opportunity I've had. I feel like I've got a little bit to prove to a lot of people, but a lot to prove to myself. I want to win races more than anything in the world.

"Now, it's my turn to see if I can drive."

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