Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!
Today’s Question: Jeremy Mayfield was removed in place of Johnny Sauter at Haas CNC Racing this week. Was this move the right call to turn a struggling program around… or did the team simply not give Mayfield enough of a chance?
10 Races to Show Your Worth
After just 10 races, Haas has decided that Mayfield no longer merits a position driving the No. 70 car. I hope Frontstretch doesn’t do that with me after 10 columns. It’s not often you see a pitcher get traded after two months with a team.
Mayfield is being replaced by Sauter, who after 10 races in the same car last year only had one top 10, a ninth-place finish at Phoenix. Mayfield blew an engine in the No. 66 last year at Phoenix, so there’s no knowing how well he could have done. Apparently, the thinking is that Sauter runs well in Phoenix and could put this team back in the Top 35. With that mentality, Haas could drop Sauter and bring back Mayfield for Pocono. Sauter making the field for Phoenix is not guaranteed by any means.
Mayfield has won races in the Cup Series driving for Penske and Evernham, something that Sauter was not able to do in his albeit brief stint at Richard Childress. Sauter ran 13 races at RCR in better equipment and managed a top finish of 14th twice. He had two top-10 finishes last year for Haas – not terrible given the level at which Haas usually performs, but hardly a reason to get Mayfield out of the car in a hurry. The team had already let Sauter go once; why the musical driver seats? What does that say to a new sponsor?
But like managers in baseball, when the team doesn’t perform, someone has to go and it can’t be the whole team. Mayfield wasn’t lighting up the field in the No. 70 this year, but he wasn’t wrecking every week either. And a 16th at Vegas is nothing to sneeze at… Vegas is the type of intermediate track where a team must run well to stay in contention. There aren’t many tracks similar to Phoenix that will suit Sauter that way. 36th in points isn’t a disaster, he could have easily been right back in the Top 35 after this week. This move says “we’re panicking.”
Mayfield struggled in 2007 driving the No. 36 for Bill Davis, but every driver in a Toyota struggled last year, with mostly new teams having no guarantee of racing every Sunday. Even a former champion like Dale Jarrett faced tremendous difficulty making the field each week.
The No. 18 notwithstanding, how often does a team improve significantly after a driver change, particularly a lower-tier team? JJ Yeley hasn’t finished higher than 25th in the No. 96 so far, after Tony Raines had three top 20s in his last seven races for Hall of Fame Racing. Jeff Green had two top 20s in his last five races in the No. 66; Scott Riggs has just one. Elliott Sadler hasn’t even exactly set the world on fire replacing Mayfield in the No. 19, he had two top 10s in 2007 and one sixth this year.
Yes, Mayfield’s departures from Penske and Evernham weren’t pretty. But it’s still questionable whether the all of the blame for that can be placed on Mayfield’s shoulders. Rusty Wallace had trouble getting along with his other teammate as well, and Ray Evernham wasn’t looking like a saint at the time Mayfield left. There didn’t seem to be any acrimony when he departed from Bill Davis.
If Mayfield is the problem here, then it’s hard to understand this statement from Haas: “Jeremy’s proven resume behind the wheel of a Cup car was a real benefit to our team. He stepped into the seat and did everything we asked him to and more. Ultimately, we were unable to provide him with the right balance, handling and speed he needed to be successful.”
Maybe this is just PR, but it’s still baffling. “We were unable to provide him with the right balance?” They came to this conclusion after just 10 races in two separate seasons?
So it’s the team’s failure that the driver wasn’t running well, by the team’s own admission, and this was followed by the driver being removed from the equation. Sounds like Mayfield wasn’t the weak link here. – Kurt Smith
Haas, Mayfield Made Mutually Beneficial Decision For Both
Mayfield’s career has come with more twists and turns than Days of Our Lives, so to see him ousted from his new Haas CNC ride seven races into the season wasn’t a real shock. After all, this is the same man who had the guts to out Erin Crocker and Ray Evernham’s relationship when everyone else knew for months but was just afraid to open their mouths; add an unceremonious dumping from Roger Penske in 2001, and Mayfield’s got a history of messy divorces with former teams. So, if you’re sitting there thinking he didn’t get enough of a chance before Haas CNC pulled the plug, well, you don’t know the driver that you’re plugged into.
When the going gets tough, Mayfield has a history of getting going; and there’s no question about it, Haas CNC was a tough row to hoe and then some. The program has yet to finish in the top 20 in the owner standings in its six-year existence, and it was a program in need of a driver who’ll make a long-term commitment to building a contender. That’s inconsistent with Mayfield’s career success; his best efforts have come with teams that already have the best equipment and support underneath them (see, Penske: 1998-2001, Evernham, 2002-05). Moody by nature, Mayfield’s never played the role of the underdog well; at Bill Davis Racing, he lasted just 32 starts – with zero top-10 finishes – before he figured out behind-the-eight-ball operations just weren’t his thing.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s no question the two-time Chase participant can still get the job done with the right equipment underneath him. But sometimes even the best of drivers suffer from a lack of chemistry. Just look at what happened to Mayfield in 2006; after surging into the Chase for a second time with crew chief Kenny Francis, Francis was stripped away and given to Kasey Kahne‘s No. 9. Mayfield never recovered; chemistry with replacement Chris Andrews never developed, and by midseason it was simply a matter of time until he’d be released. It was the same old story at Haas from day one. With 2008 crew chief Dave Skog, the best Mayfield could muster in seven events was a 16th at Las Vegas; instead, he collected five finishes of 30th or worse during that stretch. Add a big fat zero in the laps-led department, and it’s clear this isn’t the season everyone envisioned for the No. 70.
Let’s expand that statistic out to when Mayfield started with the program last year. In 11 starts with Haas, Mayfield still has one top-20 finish (that 16th at Vegas). In comparison, former driver Green had four top-20 finishes in the 11 races before he was released – to go with three top 10s he’d already accumulated throughout 2007. Current teammate Riggs has finishes of 21st, 21st, 18th and 22nd already on his resume this season, and he’s run in the top 10 for extended stretches at Las Vegas and Atlanta. By those stats alone, it’s clear there was a gap in performance that Mayfield needed to make up.
That’d be all well and good if Mayfield had a season’s worth of immunity; but the team doesn’t have time to mess around. After a 38th-place run at Texas, the No. 70 is faced with the problem of having to qualify on speed at Phoenix, as they’ve slipped to 36th in owner points with Mayfield behind the wheel. They’re only six points out, but nonetheless, qualifying and racing Saturday is critically important; should they suffer one more poor finish, Talladega will become a daunting prospect for them to qualify for when there’s an expected entry list of around 50 cars. Even with Hendrick engines, you never know what speed you’re going to unload with at that racetrack; and Haas CNC clearly doesn’t want to run the risk of the dreaded DNQ, falling further behind when they’re still attempting to acquire sponsorship for the season – and debuting a new sponsor in Hunt Brothers Pizza to boot.
In replacing Mayfield with Sauter – right now – Haas gets back a former driver who’s not only familiar with the team, but someone who led the No. 70 to a top-10 finish at Phoenix just last year. It’s that type of run the organization sorely needs right now; and if they felt Mayfield wasn’t working out, why wait that extra race only to see themselves put in a more precarious position? As it is, the veteran has never proven to be the best qualifier; the last time he started in the top 10 was Dover way back in June of 2006. With Haas, his average start was 32nd place; that hardly inspires confidence that he’d be a sure bet to get the car in the field on time each week. If you’re looking for further proof, just check out his track record with BDR’s No. 36 last year; forced to qualify on speed, Mayfield missed the first four races and had 19 DNQs before deciding not to return to the team. Certainly, the fact the program had a non-paying sponsor for much of the season should be considered; but at the same time, there was enough money there for the car to run the full season. At some point, you’ve got to get that car in the show; and it was a struggle for Mayfield to do so every week.
No doubt, Mayfield will be a hotter commodity than you’d think as the year progresses; after all, it’s not often that a driver with two Chase appearances under his belt becomes available. But his future with Haas CNC never got off the ground; and with Mayfield pushing 40 and the team struggling to stay relevant, neither one needed to spend the time futzing around to fit a square peg in a round hole. Good thing they made the smart decision for both. – Tom Bowles