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Mayfield quietly setting sights on Nextel title

Posted: Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tony Stewart is red hot, Roush Racing has half the 10-man field and Ryan Newman owns the first win of this year's 10-race NASCAR playoff.

Yet Jeremy Mayfield still considers himself every bit as much a contender in the Chase for the Nextel Cup championship as any of the other nine drivers.

''Why not?'' Mayfield asked. ''We've been here before and we feel like we know how to handle the pressure of it all.''

To make a serious run at the title over the next nine races, Mayfield is going to have to do better than his 16th-place run last Sunday at New Hampshire. That left him eighth, 95 points behind series leader Stewart, who is on a tear with 13 consecutive top-eight finishes.

''Well, the good news is that we started the Chase out better than we did last year,'' said Mayfield, who crashed and finished 35th at New Hampshire a year ago and went on to finish 10th in the inaugural Chase.

''The bad news is that we battled the car all day long,'' he said. ''We just couldn't get it handling right. We really wanted to come out of (New Hampshire) with a top five or top 10, but at least we finished the race.''

A year ago, Mayfield had to win the race at Richmond, the week before New Hampshire, just to nudge his way into the Chase field.

After his crash in the Chase opener, he finished seventh in Dover, but another crash the following week in the always-dangerous race at Talladega relegated him to 38th and he was never able to recover the lost ground.

''Jeremy definitely had some bad luck last year,'' said team owner Ray Evernham. ''He never really got it going in the Chase. But we think the whole team is more prepared this year. There's no reason we can't compete.''

Despite the so-so start and the fact he owns only one race victory this season —a fuel-strategy run last month at Michigan —Mayfield too remains confident he can compete.

''This year is a totally different feeling (than 2004),'' Mayfield said. ''We're just more confident. We've got some experience behind us knowing what it takes to get in the thing now, and we've done it twice.

''Last year, there was a lot of pressure going into it. Nobody knew what to expect. Now we're more relaxed and more confident with what's going on. All the media and all the other stuff going on around the Chase isn't as much of a distraction.''

The 36-year-old Mayfield, in his 11th full season in Cup and his fourth with Evernham Motorsports, has finished better than last year's 10th place only once in his career. He was seventh in 1998 driving for Roger Penske.

But Mayfield still considers his team a legitimate contender, even if others don't.

''Most people figured us for around 18th or 19th (in the standings),'' he said. ''I don't understand that, because we're a good race team. Yeah, it didn't look like we performed the last 10 races (of last year), but we really did.

''We were running up front before something happened. That's what fuels our fire. The more we get knocked down and drug out, the more we come back. We're a team that can handle pressure like that.''

Asked if he feels like Rodney Dangerfield, the late comedian who always joked he got no respect, Mayfield said he feels more like former boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

''We run our mouth, and now we've got to back it up,'' Mayfield said. ''Along the way, we have talked a lot. Last year, I was talking a bunch of stuff when we got into Richmond. We backed that up, somehow. We got lucky on that deal.

''What I'm wondering is what's going to happen when we do win the championship. What's everybody going to say then? 'Well, they'll be 25th next year.' But we're prepared for it.

''Whether we win it this year or not, though, I know that at the end of this 10-race deal we're all going to be sitting there knowing we gave it 110 percent. We've got a shot at it. We've got experience at it. There's no reason we can't do it.''



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