Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday October 22, 2007
One week ago, it looked like Jeremy Mayfield’s Nextel Cup career was nearing a difficult, painful ending. But just when you thought the two-time Chaser was down and out for good … he’s been given one final chance.
It was announced on Monday that Mayfield is going to drive the No. 66 car for Haas CNC Racing for the rest of this season and all of 2008. That ride was occupied, until this week, by Jeff Green, who has now been unceremoniously shoved to the unemployment line. While the seat is not the A-level ride Mayfield’s desired since announcing he’d leave Bill Davis Racing at the end of 2007, it still represents an opportunity, one more chance to prove he can still make a living driving in the Cup series.
After a series of tough endings with top teams, he needs to make the most of this one.
Mayfield has been around the Cup series for a long time. He made his Cup debut in 1993 driving a car for the Sadler Brothers; after a short stint with them and a similar underfunded team owned by T.W. Taylor the following year, he began driving for Cale Yarborough. Mayfield had an unspectacular run with Yarborough, compiling just two Top 5s and three Top 10s in two years with the team before moving elsewhere. Mayfield was then hired by Michael Kranefuss and drove the 1997 season for him, accumulating three Top 5s and eight Top 10 finishes. A breakout year for what was then a single car program, Mayfield’s flashes of brilliance that season proved a sign of things to come.
Kranefuss was bought out by racing legend Roger Penske in the offseason, and all of a sudden, Mayfield was given every opportunity in the world to succeed. He did just that: over the next four seasons, he won three races, accumulating 28 Top 5s and 47 Top 10s with what became the No. 12 Mobil 1 car. After his relationship with Penske deteriorated during a prolonged slump at the end of his tenure, Mayfield was released near the end of the 2001 season and picked up by Evernham Motorsports, with whom he’d drive the next five years. Again, it was a place where Mayfield was handed the tools needed to be successful, and he did not disappoint his new owner: he scored two wins, 15 Top 5s, and 38 Top 10s, making the Chase in each of its first two years of existence. But after struggling much of last year, Mayfield was left out in the cold before being picked up by Bill Davis Racing for 2007. Driving for a brand new team, it’s proven to be the most difficult year of his long career; making just 13 races, Mayfield has failed to qualify nineteen times, with no Top 10 finishes to his credit.
Through it all, there was a common thread among Mayfield's departures from Yarborough, Penske, and Evernham; he spoke disparagingly about the team and the equipment he was being provided each time. The end result was that the owners felt as though Mayfield was causing a disruption within their organization, and they decided it was time to part ways. His knack of causing controversy on the way out the door peaked in the middle of last season, where Mayfield responded to struggles within the No. 19 team by suing the team and leaking through court documents that Ray Evernham was dating a female driver that’s half his age, Erin Crocker. Since then, the veteran’s been running around the garage with a bit of a black eye; despite impressive credentials, most top-level owners were hesitant to even interview him for big rides this Silly Season due to past transgressions. As a result, Mayfield lost out on prime opportunities with DEI, Childress, and several other organizations.
Realizing how this has affected his future, Mayfield has not spoken poorly of BDR, a small team that is trying to compete with the big dogs of the sport with Toyota’s new Camry. Either Mayfield has learned to keep his mouth shut, or he actually realized that he is in a situation where his equipment is simply not going to be on par with the bigger teams, giving him no reason to truly complain.
Now, Mayfield is moving to another organization struggling to keep up with the superteams he once drove for. Haas CNC is not on par with the Hendrick, Roush Fenway, ot Gillett Evernhams of the world; they are a smaller team that is trying to make a name for themselves on a shoestring budget. Like with BDR, Mayfield is going to be challenged to try and keep up with the frontrunners when his equipment is not up to the level of the bigger teams. So the question will be, can Mayfield curb his tongue and work within the framework of the limited opportunities that he will be presented with, or will his mouth get him in trouble again?
While no one will admit to it, the rumor is that Mayfield has been blackballed by the big teams for those comments about his former owners. His resume speaks for itself; making the Chase twice since its inception is something that many other drivers cannot claim. In fact, Mayfield has more wins than quite a few of the drivers who are currently in the series, and has proven to be quite marketable in his commercial appearances over the years. Despite all that, only Haas CNC was willing to take a chance on him, speaking volumes about the current reputation he possesses in this sport. No question, this is Mayfield’s likely last chance to make it in big time auto racing; if this ride doesn't work out, he’ll likely spend the rest of his career racing Trucks, or be completely out of NASCAR altogether.
The driver who Mayfield is replacing is one that has simply never had the kind of success that many people predicted for him. Until Harvick's domination of the Busch series last year, Jeff Green owned the largest winning margin in the history of the Busch Series Championship, and has been given several opportunities on NASCAR’s top level. However, Green's Cup career has been marked by rides with a handful of owners, with his only real success coming with Richard Childress. During the 2002 season, he scored four Top 5s and six Top 10s while driving for RCR. However, in 2003 he only scored one Top 10 finish, and was released by Childress 12 races into the season after a public spat with Kevin Harvick. He made starts for DEI and Petty Enterprises after that, but didn't see much success with them, either. Green actually spent the majority of 2004 and 2005 with Petty, but only put one Top 10 on the board during his tenure there. The last two years, he has been driving for Haas CNC with similar results. In fact, he has accounted for five Top 10 finishes in just under two seasons with the team.
Green has always been thought to have the talent to be a big time driver in NASCAR, but for whatever reason, the chemistry has just never worked out. Will he get another shot? It’s going to be a tough road to hoe. He is 45 years old, which is well outside of the demographic that most of today's owners consider driver material. Barring a surprising development, this may very well be the end of the road for Green's Cup career.
It will be interesting to see where the careers of these two drivers will go from here. Mayfield has shown flashes of brilliance through the years, but has also consistently shown an ability to irritate his owners until they let him go. Meanwhile, Green has the potential to do better than he has, but has never lived up to it at the Cup level…and now, it may be too late. The modern world of NASCAR is turning more and more to younger drivers. Ironically, these two aging warriors are both from the same hometown of Owensboro, Kentucky, a link to racing’s past that finds himself slowly fading away.
At least Mayfield is assured one more shot before the curtain closes.
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