Bill Elliott is in title contention while Jeremy Mayfield struggles.
By JOANNE KORTH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 18, 2002
Bill Elliott is perhaps the hottest driver in Winston Cup racing this summer, a two-time winner charging through the standings and into title contention.
Yes, Bill is back.
But where is Jeremy?
Teammates at Ray Evernham Motorsports, Elliott and Jeremy Mayfield drive almost identical red Dodge Intrepids but are at opposite ends of the performance spectrum. Elliott is eighth in points in the No. 9, Mayfield 28th in the No. 19.
"The results are not there, and we all know that," said Mayfield, who has two top-10 finishes in 22 events. "But it's been a good year. I'm happy with the team. I feel like the second half of the season will be better for us."
Mayfield joined Evernham's second-year organization this season, replacing 2001 rookie Casey Atwood. Hopes were high that Mayfield was the missing piece, a driver with valuable experience who could bring stability to a team with the resources to win.
It wasn't that easy.
The chemistry between Mayfield and crew chief Sammy Johns was not good. Johns was released, and for the past several races the team has operated without a crew chief. Evernham, who won three championships as Jeff Gordon's crew chief at Hendrick Motorsports, sits atop the pit box and makes race-day decisions.
"We've got a new system in place where we don't really have a crew chief," said Mayfield, 33-year-old native of Owensboro, Ky. "We've got a team manager, an engineer, an owner and a driver. I think that's working real well for us. Ray is on top of the box and he kind of does all of the race stuff."
Elliott, 46, one of the dominant drivers of the late 1980s and early '90s, is reaping the benefits of a second season with crew chief Mike Ford. Elliott has four top fives, 10 top 10s and four poles. Having won two of the past three events, he will try today for his eighth career victory at Michigan International Speedway. He starts sixth.
Mayfield, whose three career victories came while driving the No. 12 Ford for Kranefuss-Penske from 1998-2000, is going through first-year growing pains with his Evernham team. He was second at Las Vegas in March but has finished 30th or worse 13 times.
Though both teams share the same shop, Evernham said it is not fair to compare results.
"The 9 team has actually been together since 2000," Evernham said. "In fairness to the 19 guys, they're working their butts off. But they've been through a driver change. They've been through two crew chief changes, and we've just not been able to hit that chemistry and get that communication flowing."
Mayfield enjoys the atmosphere in Evernham's shop, where everyone works together. It is quite a switch, he said, from the years spent as Rusty Wallace's teammate at Penske.
"It's pretty cool to walk in the shop, and everybody is working together," Mayfield said. "I feel good when Bill sits on the pole. ... Before, if I ran good, Rusty didn't feel too good about it. That's been the biggest difference. Bill and I work great together. I want us to keep going in the same direction so we don't have all this Jeremy-Rusty stuff."
While fans see Elliott's strong performance this season as a reflection of the past, Mayfield sees it as a glimpse into the future. Though he would like to be running up front with Elliott, he knows his team is headed in the right direction.
"We all had that pressure in the beginning, but in reality, I think we all knew we couldn't just jump out there and be on top," he said. "It takes time to get it all together. "It's been a building year for the 19 team. Bill has been the solid car week in and week out.
"I think now you'll see the 19 moving up to where it needs to be and, hopefully, you'll see the 9 and 19 real close."