Next stop: Nextel

Posted: Sunday, September 12, 2004

RICHMOND, Va. The task was clear for Jeremy Mayfield: Win the race and don't worry about making NASCAR's playoffs.

Mission accomplished.

Mayfield raced to his first victory in more than four years Saturday night, taking the Chevrolet 400 at Richmond International Raceway after leader Kurt Busch ran out of gas eight laps from the finish.

The victory locked Mayfield into NASCAR's race for the Nextel Cup title in the final qualifying event.

''We had no choice but to try to win the race and lead the most laps,'' Mayfield said. ''We really put it all together because we had to win. We focused all week on that.''

But Mayfield was the only driver to jump into the chase. Kasey Kahne, his teammate at Evernham Motorsports, finished 12th and dropped out of the top 10.

''It was a pathetic race car,'' Kahne said. ''It was not a good day.''

Jamie McMurray felt the same way, finishing in ninth place and narrowly missing the chase. He's 11th in the standings, but just 31 points out of the 400-point window that would have qualified him. His team spent the final few laps desperately begging from help from other drivers to get McMurray more positions and more points. But with his engine draining on power, there was nothing he could do.

''The motor just blew up again with about 25 laps to go, and there wasn't a whole lot we could do,'' McMurray said. ''We don't deserve to be in it.''

Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick and Dale Jarrett were the only other drivers with mathematical shots at racing into the playoff picture, but ended up as also-rans after poor performances on the 0.75-mile track.

Jarrett finished 26th and was never a factor.

''We looked like we weren't prepared for that,'' he said. ''We ran terrible, just terrible.''

The chase will start with Jeff Gordon as the points leader, followed in five-point increments by Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, defending champion Matt Kenseth, Elliott Sadler, Busch, Mark Martin, Mayfield and Ryan Newman.

The points system was adopted this year, replacing the format that began in 1975 and rewarded consistency while often creating dull championship chases. The champion has typically coasted to his title with few challenges over the stretch run.

Now, any of the 10 drivers can win it, including Martin, a four-time championship runner-up who used a strong surge to qualify for the playoffs.

''I drove harder than I've ever driven a car,'' Martin said. ''It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my entire life. We spotted some great competition hundreds of points and we worked hard to get back in. I think it's going to be easy from here.''

It might be for Mayfield, too.

He came into the race in 14th place in the standings and knew he'd have to work hard to get into the top 10. But he came to Richmond prepared, qualifying his Dodge in seventh place and running well in all the practice sessions.

Then he worked his way to the front of the pack and took the lead for the first time 99 laps in. He traded it several times over the course of the race, and it soon became clear he'd need to win to get into the playoffs.

Despite being in third place late in the race, he was showing in 11th place in the standings and out of the chase with not many laps to go.

He regained the lead on lap 339, but held it just 10 laps before Busch passed him. It made for 44 nervous laps for Mayfield. But as the end closed in, Busch's Ford ran dry and Mayfield scooted by for the win.

''I couldn't believe it because the way my luck's been, I thought no way he's going to run out,'' Mayfield said. ''When he did, I said, 'This can't be true, now it's my turn to cut a tire or something.'''

Mayfield ended up with two five-point bonuses, one for leading a lap and one for leading a race-high 151 laps. He credited the effort to car owner Ray Evernham, who won three titles as Gordon's crew chief.

''Ray just has a way of stepping it up,'' Mayfield said. ''He turned up the intensity for us and had us all ready and focused.''

Earnhardt Jr. was second in the race, followed by Gordon, Mike Bliss, Martin, Carl Edwards, Mike Wallace, Greg Biffle, McMurray and Rusty Wallace.

Johnson, who came into the race as the points leader, finished 36th after a mid-race accident that gave the standings its first shift.

Johnson was watching a battle between Jimmy Spencer and Casey Mears, and the two eventually made contact and caused a multi-car pileup that collected Johnson and caused heavy damage to his Chevrolet.

As his crew worked frantically to get his car back on the track, he lashed out at Spencer and the new points system.

''That's the way this system works desperate guys doing desperate things,'' Johnson said. ''This could happen (in the season finale). That's why I don't like this system.''

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