Mayfield Wildly Popular Since Earnhardt Incident

LONG POND, Pa. -- Jeremy Mayfield is much more popular now than when he arrived five weeks ago at Pocono International Raceway.

Those things happen when you get in a last-lap tangle with Dale Earnhardt -- and come out on top.

"I heard from a lot of people after that race," said Mayfield, who nudged ``The Intimidator'' aside on the final lap June 19 to win the Pocono 500. "There were a ton of people who called, and a ton more who found me at the track at Sears Point and Daytona and New Hampshire, just to slap me on the back."

Earnhardt, who has done considerable last-lap nudging en route to a record-tying seven Winston Cup championships, is all but silent about the outcome of that last Pocono race.

"I got in the corner, and I got shoved a little bit, and I got beat," he said.

And the crowd cheered.

Moments later, Earnhardt let Mayfield know what he thought of the move, making an obscene gesture as the cars slowed after taking the checkered flag.

"I told him he was No. 1," Earnhardt said of the gesture.

He righted the car after the contact in the third turn on the 2 1/2-mile track and finished fourth. He got valuable points and stands second, 45 behind season leader Bobby Labonte.

Earnhardt has been the most consistent driver this season, with 15 top-10 finishes in 18 races. He will be trying for his third career victory on the mountaintop Sunday in the Pennsylvania 500, but says winning races is secondary to breaking his tie with Richard Petty for series titles.

A title run is not part of Mayfield's plan. Standing 15th, he's most interested in winning.

"It's a good feeling anytime you do it," said Mayfield, who seeks his third victory this year.

He's in the right place to try for it. Two of Mayfield's three career wins have come on this unique, triangular layout.

"Anytime you go back somewhere as the defending champion, you have to feel pretty good about your chances," he said. "But that's no guarantee. We won at Pocono in 1998 and came back here three times before we won again."

Actually, Labonte won this race last season, completing the first sweep in 13 years of the track's summer races.

Sunday's race doesn't figure to be a match race between Mayfield and Earnhardt. They'll have to beat Labonte; three-time series champion Jeff Gordon, a three-time winner on the mountaintop; reigning series champion Dale Jarrett, a two-time Pocono winner; and Tony Stewart.

Like Earnhardt and Jarrett, 68 points behind Labonte in the standings, Stewart has championship aspirations. He's on a roll with three wins in the last six races, and six top straight top-10 finishes have brought him within 215 points of teammate Labonte.

"I think we've got a good shot, but so do a lot of other guys,'' said Stewart, who in the last nine races has advanced eight positions to fifth in the standings. "The racing's been tight every race week, so you expect the points to be the same way."

Labonte is seeking redemption for last month, when he developed a cracked tailpipe, fought an ill-handling car and wound up 13th.

"To say we were unhappy with the way we ran in June is a big understatement," he said. "We have a brand new car up here for this event that I tested recently and I was very excited at how it responded to the changes we threw at it."

Following a rare week off in the schedule after the New England 300, many of the drivers are still thinking about Kenny Irwin. He died two days before that race, wrecking in practice in the same turn where Adam Petty had a fatal crash two months earlier while preparing for a NASCAR Busch Series race at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"Plain and simple, we miss him," said Irwin's teammate, Sterling Marlin, a former Pocono polesitter. "Everybody is hurting here right now."

Ted Musgrave will drive for Team SABCO for the next two races in the No. 01 car. The team retired Irwin's No. 42.

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