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The Callahan Report: Mayfield overcomes pain, car problems to win in California

1 May 2000

By Terry Callahan
Motorsports Editor, The Auto Channel
Jeremy Mayfield
FONTANA, CA: Jeremy Mayfield beat 42 drivers to capture his first NASCAR Winston Cup victory since 1998. He beat other obstacles too. His back was burned and blistered when his oil cooler began leaking early in the race. The malfunctioning device was located behind Mayfield's drivers seat. The problem placed Mayfield one lap behind the field.

Successful race drivers have a way of putting pain out of their minds. Mayfield is no exception. Worries of physical injury and pain can be put off until the racing is over.

"It was real hot and I'm probably all blistered up, but you've got to suck it up sometimes," Mayfield said in victory lane.

Mayfield clearly had a fast car. When the field took the green flag at the end of the first caution period, Mayfield was in 37th place. He lined up next to race leader, Mike Skinner, as cars that are a lap down are allowed to do under NASCAR rules. Mayfield pulled away from Skinner, who was pulling away from the rest of the competition.

With some well thought out pit strategy, Mayfield found himself leading under a caution flag with three laps to go. His problems weren't over yet. When the green flag waved on the 247th lap, Mayfield's primary ignition failed. He sputtered and was nearly passed by eventual second place finisher Bobby Labonte. Mayfield quickly switched to his backup ignition while Labonte was racing beside him. Mayfield pulled away to win by 0.300 seconds.

The Penske-Kranefuss driver was taken to the infield care center for dehydration after a short victory celebration. He was given IV fluids and was then allowed to return for more interviews. Even though the initial victory celebration was short, it was long enough for Mayfield to add to his race-day problems.

While celebrating the victory, Mayfield jumped on top of his car. Four hours after the race, NASCAR officials announced that Mayfield's roof was under the specified 55 inches set by NASCAR. The rules makers stated that the victory will not be stripped from Mayfield, but penalties may be assessed.

Penalties have haunted Mayfield's team over the past two weeks. After the Talladega race two weeks ago, Mayfield's car was impounded. Inspections found that the fuel in his car did not meet specifications. An illegal fuel additive was suspected. NASCAR will make a ruling on the penalties for that infraction Tuesday. The fines for such an offense could reach into the six figure range, as well as a loss of Winston Cup points.

"We're just a tight team and for us to win today was like our first win over again," Mayfield said after the race. "I'm not even worried about these last two weeks. We're looking for the future."

Many of the fans and the competition had written Mayfield off after he had his problems early in the race. It is difficult to regain a lap at a two mile racing facility like California Speedway. Mayfield continued to chip away from the back of the field. He moved back into contention with 31 laps remaining when Jimmy Spencer crashed on the 219th lap.

In a magnificent pit call by his crew chief, Mayfield took on two tires instead of four. Most of the front runners elected to change all four tires, including the race dominator, Matt Kenseth. The move allowed Mayfield to gain track position. He was in second place behind Mark Martin (who didn't pit during the caution period) when the race was restarted on the 224th lap. Mayfield quickly disposed of Martin on the restart.

Bobby Labonte began closing in on Mayfield. Kenseth was following close behind Labonte. The race was slowed one final time with seven laps to go when Dick Trickle crashed. That caution period set up the dramatic restart on lap 247 of 250. Labonte didn't realize Mayfield had an ignition problem. He thought Mayfield was trying to block his advance. Either way, Labonte thought it was a good move.

"On that restart, Mayfield kind of scared me," said Labonte, who regained the points lead by virtue of his second place finish. "I was going to try to get by him on the outside and he let off the gas and I thought he might be trying to block me and I hesitated a little. It messed up my momentum and my plans."

The NAPA Auto Parts 500 was the tenth race of the 2000 NASCAR Winston Cup season. It produced the tenth different winner of the year. There were several other drivers in the top ten who were prepared to keep the "different winner" streak alive (if Mayfield had failed) including Kenseth. The driver of the DeWalt Tools Ford led 119 of the 250 laps. It was only his 16th start in the series.

Kenseth looked like he was going to be the second rookie this season to win in NASCAR's top series. Dale Earnhardt Jr. accomplished the feat at Texas Motor Speedway earlier this year.

"We didn't really need the caution" said Kenseth. "We had an excellent race car, but I was really struggling to come from the back. I just don't have the experience to get the thing to the front. In dirty air, around a lot of traffic, we were real, real loose. It took us 10 or 15 laps to get going."

"I just planned on losing all day," Kenseth continued. "I knew something would happen. Then, just when I thought we might have it won, that's when it happened."

Bobby Labonte disagreed with the confidence-lacking rookie, saying "Matt Kenseth would have won and I might have finished second if that yellow hadn't come out. He had the best car all day."

Other "non-winners" in the year 2000 who finished in the top ten included Ricky Rudd and Mike Skinner.

"We just got outrun,'' Skinner commented. "We obviously had the wrong package there somehow. Our team is pretty solid right now. I'm pretty disappointed but, on the other hand, 30-plus teams behind us would change places, so we'll take it."

NASCAR prepares for Saturday night racing action this weekend at Richmond . . . another track notorious for producing surprise winners. If you're planning on making bets, pick any driver who has not won this year.

Editors Note: To view hundreds of hot racing photos and art, visit The Racing Photo Museum and the Visions of Speed Art Gallery.