The Frontstretch: Don't Let the Owner Tag Fool You: Mayfield Still a Driver First by Bryan Davis Keith -- Tuesday March 17, 2009

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Don't Let the Owner Tag Fool You: Mayfield Still a Driver First

Bryan Davis Keith · Tuesday March 17, 2009

 

Take a look at the entry lists from the first four Cup races of 2009, and you’ll see Jeremy Mayfield’s name listed for every one as the owner of the No. 41 All Sport Toyota.

Well, that might as well be news to him. Who’s ever heard of a Cup owner that relishes getting to work on their cars outside in a chain link-fenced paddock behind the actual Cup garage, or engages in playful shoving matches and banter with their crew members on the team hauler?

“It’s been weird, because [they] call me an owner, but I don’t feel like an owner owner,” says Mayfield. “I come here and feel like I’m a driver.”

Each week, Jeremy Mayfield’s team is one of the hardest-working underdog operations in the Cup garage. But after two DNQs in their last two attempts, is their team in jeopardy of falling off the Cup Series radar?

“I haven’t had to sit in the back and lead, or whatever an owner does, I’m not sure what they do yet. We’ve got good people, and this deal hasn’t changed my lifestyle at all.”

“This deal” that Mayfield is referring to is the 25th hour creation that is Mayfield Motorsports and the No. 41 team. Because just as Mayfield continues to see himself as a driver first and foremost, he has seen himself as a Cup driver, even in a stretch dating back through 2006 that has seen the longtime NASCAR veteran lose three full-time rides in the Cup ranks. It’s a vision that’s kept him focused on the sport’s top level, even after all the free agent rides in the Cup Series didn’t pan out his way last Fall.

“I thought about doing a Truck deal and it didn’t make sense,” said Mayfield of a Silly Season in which he was rumored to buy teams like the No. 15 of Billy Ballew Motorsports — sales which eventually fell through. “You can’t really be crazy and go truck racing without a huge sponsor, and you can’t get a huge sponsor to go truck racing, so it’s a never-ending battle there — and that’s not where I wanted to be, anyway. I was thinking in those terms… and didn’t do that. Thought about a Nationwide team, didn’t do that [either].”

Instead, the Owensboro, Kentucky native has known all along that the Cup Series is where he wants to be. And that’s what’s led the two-time Chase contender to adopt the role of upstart this offseason.

“It was kind of a weird process,” says Mayfield of how the No. 41 car came to be. “[Team Manager] Bobby [Wooten]…was talking to Tony [Furr] and myself about doing something with another guy who was going to get involved and fund this. We just kept talking and talking, and [before you knew it] had all the pieces in place and people and had a good plan. So every day, we just got more and more around us, parts and people, and it just wasn’t happening.”

This continued until mid-January, when Mayfield, Furr, and Wooten realized, “If we’re going to Daytona, we’ve got to figure out a way to do it one way or the other.”

“So basically, I kind of bit the bullet. We went out there and found some cars from Marty [Gaunt] at Triad [Racing Technologies], and it just all came together.”

Spoken like a true driver… “it just all came together.” But even though his name is the one bestowed upon the team, Mayfield is quick to point out that Team Manager, Bobby Wooten, is the architect behind what is now Mayfield Motorsports.

“Tony and I had been friends for awhile and were talking along the way, but Bobby is the one who’s trying to put it all together… to get it going,” he explains. “Basically, we’re following the direction he’s talked about going. Bobby had it laid out in place anyway.”

And just as Mayfield is quick to point out perhaps a surprising amount of deferral to Wooten in moving Mayfield Motorsports forward, there’s no doubt he’s got his own long-term goals surrounding what the company should become. And when you ask what he looks for to eventually compete with the most successful single-car operation in the Cup ranks today, Robby Gordon Motorsports, you’ll find Mayfield and his vision of the No. 41 camp is drastically different from that of the No. 7.

“I don’t want to start building our own cars, build our own chassis shop,” Mayfield says — a drastic difference from what Gordon’s done in putting his own program together. “We don’t need that. Right now, we don’t need it, for sure. Robby’s kind of gone down that road, building his own cars, and I’m not sure if that’s helping or hurting him — but I don’t see how that can help us.”

“So we’re going to keep it simple, and use the resources that are open and available [to us] through Toyota, to help us in the future, use them as an engineering group. We feel like they’re a lot smarter than… I mean, I could go out and hire ten brand new engineers right now, and never be where Toyota is right now. So why would we do that?”

“Just to have them there doesn’t make sense, and then to build our own chassis and stuff, that doesn’t make a lot of sense when we can have Triad build our chassis or Toyota lead the way building our cars. Lots of stuff like that, we’re going to rely on other people. We’ve got no egos here. We’re not too proud to say ‘we didn’t build that car.’ We don’t care who built it. What we care about is how we run with it, how we run around the race track.”

While there may be no egos concerning where the team’s race cars are coming from or the business plan the team follows, there is no doubt that Mayfield’s ego as a race car driver is still alive and kicking. Because when speaking to him at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Friday afternoon before a practice and qualifying session that saw the No. 41 woefully off the pace, you’d still never have known the team had failed to qualify the week before — or that their best finish through the 2009 season thus far was a 34th place run at Fontana.

When asked about missing the race at Vegas after barely beating the five minute clock to make their run, Mayfield responded, “[Being late] didn’t hurt us one bit. We made all the right changes… in practice we kept getting faster and faster and faster, in our six [practice] runs anyway. We were pretty good by the end of practice and were expecting a pickup for qualifying. [So] we made a few more changes and went out [to qualify], and the car drove perfect.”

The long, hard push from the garage to the qualifying grid can prove all the more painful when you don’t make the race, as Mayfield’s team found out the hard way at Atlanta last Friday night.

“We were hauling ass through turns 3 and 4 and got a good run coming to the green. Went down into turn 1 and just barely hit the splitter and bottomed out [on the bumps]… slid up the track and cost us time. Same reason Dale Jr. did, Matt Kenseth did, Jeff Gordon about did. Nothing the team did, other than failing to compensate for about an eighth inch [of clearance] in the setup. That’s the way I look at it.”

“I just want everyone to know this team was dead on. It wasn’t anything we did, other than not compensating for that eighth of an inch, which we’ll do tonight.”

“We had a great car and should have been in the race.”

Even more telling was his confidence the next week at Atlanta, even with a car that consistently timed well off the pace from the moment it unloaded off the truck. Yet prior to Friday’s night qualifying session that saw Mayfield’s Toyota well over half a second off the pace that the go-or-go-home crowd had to run — when asked how he was going to perform, Mayfield didn’t hesitate.

“Probably in the top 15,” he proclaimed. “Somewhere in there. I’m pretty confident.”

Unfortunately for Mayfield and the No. 41 crew, they didn’t even crack the top 45 at Atlanta, marking the second consecutive DNQ for a team that now finds its goal of cracking the top 35 in owner points by season’s end a much more daunting task. What’s worse, these struggles have resulted in sponsor troubles, as sources have told Frontstretch that thanks to missing races at both Las Vegas and Atlanta, funding from All Sport and Big Red, Inc. could be in jeopardy as soon as following the upcoming race at Bristol. Clearly, this weekend could be a make or break deal regarding their partnership for the 2009 campaign. Representatives of Mayfield Motorsports, when contacted, offered no comment on this report.

In short, as we head to Thunder Valley, Mayfield and his fledgling team find themselves with their backs to the wall, even only five races into the season.

But this perhaps may be just the situation that Mayfield the driver needs to be in.

It was Mayfield the driver who had his back to the wall in September 2004 when he arrived at Richmond International Raceway, faced with the ultimatum of winning the race or missing the Chase. He won. It was Mayfield the driver who arrived at Daytona this past February with an untested race car and team that had to race into the Daytona 500 or go home. He raced his way in. And it was Mayfield the driver who ultimately refused to take no for an answer this offseason in his quest to return to the Cup ranks full-time.

Under the current model being followed by Mayfield Motorsports, the owner/driver is truly attempting to do the impossible. Trying to establish oneself on the Cup circuit without building anything in house and a skeleton crew — even in a time of economic turmoil that will see entry lists continue to shrink — may be not just the most daunting task that Mayfield has ever faced in his career, but the most daunting one facing any Cup driver in 2009. And whether or not used race cars and the products of Triad Racing Technologies are going to be up to the task remains to be seen.

If there is one certainty in this equation, though, it is Mayfield. Love him or hate him, his reputation as an outspoken, passionate driver is well-earned, and both of those traits are still there. Mayfield remains as confident as ever, referring to his team’s home outdoors in the infield at Atlanta Motor Speedway as “in the hood,” while boldly proclaiming that his team is composed of nothing but “racers ready to do whatever it takes.”

“You’ll go through a lot of haulers and not find that,” he claims.

And while it’s easy for a driver to be passionate in times of triumph — such as when the No. 41 car cemented its spot in the Daytona 500 field — the same can’t be said for remaining that way in cases of bitter defeat.

Anyone who was trackside at Atlanta Motor Speedway for qualifying last Friday got a taste of just how bad Mayfield wants to succeed. After posting a lap that everyone present knew was going to send the No. 41 team home, Mayfield nearly ran over an official in the pits who was directing the non-top 35 guys to remain on pit road rather than allowing them to return to the garage and their haulers. Mayfield was doing this not out of malice, but out of trying to do anything to get away from bitter disappointment. In my view, there was not a single other driver who failed to qualify that night that was more visibly irked and upset about missing the Kobalt Tools 500.

Although what Mayfield Motorsports and other startup teams trying to make it in the 2009 Cup Series are buying may not have what it takes to make it on stock car racing’s premier stage, there are no other teams out there that can buy the passion that Mayfield is bringing to his operation. But if there is an upstart team out there that is truly going to make it, it’s his.

Because if this weekend at Bristol plays out like any other of the “do or die” situations in Mayfield’s career, he’ll be one of 43 drivers in the starting lineup come Sunday — with All Sport on his Camry.

Contact Bryan Davis Keith

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