Mayfield Seeks Happy Ending

While his results don't show it, Jeremy Mayfield has been on a roll as of late.

In the past 11 Winston Cup races, Mayfield has posted eight finishes of 29th or worse and three runner-up finishes. In fact, coming off his second-place finish last Sunday at Homestead, Mayfield now has back-to-back runner-up efforts.

So when the Winston Cup Series unloads for the season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Sunday, Mayfield will be among the favorites as he tries to cap off what has been a turbulent year and guns for his third victory of the season.

Until a few days ago, Mayfield didn’t even know if he would remain as the driver of the No. 12 Ford, owned by Roger Penske.

"We’ve got all of our loose ends tied up on our team and that’s the biggest thing," Mayfield said. "Everybody’s confidence is up. Everybody is focused on what we need to do and we’re getting ready for next year. Our performance is there, we just had to start finishing races, and now that we’re finishing, we’ve been second three times in the last five or six races, so that tells you a lot about this race team.

"Anytime you run second in a Winston Cup race it feels good, especially when you’ve had a year like we’ve had. But it’s been a great year. We’ve had like three or four seconds and a couple of wins, four poles, so it’s a pretty awesome year here."

With his immediate future settled, Mayfield will be going for his fifth pole of the year -- and 14th for the Penske team (teammate Rusty Wallace has nine) -- when first round Winston Cup qualifying gets underway on Friday at the 1.54-mile track.

"Atlanta is the last race of the season, but the way a lot of us on this team are looking at it, it is also the first race of next season," Mayfield said. "It’s our last shot at one more pole and our last shot at one more win for this season, but this race can be pretty important as far as next year is concerned.

"Our main goal is to win the race, nothing really surprising about that. But we also want to make sure we’re on track for everything we want to do next season. There is plenty of time for work in the shop and for some testing and all of that kind of stuff before we get to Daytona next year, but this is a pretty solid first step in that direction. We have 500 miles of racing left this year, and we have a lot of laps of practice time on Friday and Saturday this week. We have to take advantage of all of that."

And the pressure is on Mayfield as far as where he finishes in this year’s point standings. He is currently 22nd, but could drop out of the top 25 depending on his performance this weekend. He could also reach as high as 19th.

"We have to think hard about points racing," Mayfield said. "And to run for pride, you run to show what you can do, you run as a team and for each other. But you are out here for points. That's everything -- plain and simple.

"There are some teams that don’t seem to really start thinking about points until towards the end of the season. We haven’t been like that at all, and I think that has made a difference for us in the past, a positive difference. You have to be as worried about points in March as you are in November.

"But every year you’ll see guys working as hard as they can to fix a torn up car in a race like the second Rockingham or second Atlanta, where they would have packed it up and driven home in the first Rockingham or first Atlanta race. Those points are just as important in March as they are in November. That’s one of the reasons you see guys like Bobby Labonte sitting there on top of the pile -- they raced for points in the Daytona 500. That’s the kind of attitude you have to have."

Speaking of attitudes, Mayfield crew chief Peter Sospenzo has had his hands full basically all year, from his suspension for an illegal fuel additive in the spring race at Talladega to the fall months in August when Mayfield was injured at Indianapolis.

"We look back on this year and it was definitely a strange one," Mayfield said. "Every time something really good happened, it seemed like something really bad happened right behind it. I guess the nice part about that is every time something really bad happened, it seemed like something really good came with it. We won some races and we won some poles.

"That consistency is the main thing we need to work on for next year. We fell out of a string of races there in the late summer, but keep in mind, we were leading or running near the front in almost all of those races. That gives us a pretty good feeling about next year. But since they don’t give you as many points for almost being there, we have to work hard on finishing what we started.

"But we’re pretty excited right now. We’ve been running pretty good all year, but it’s just started showing up again in the finishes the past few weeks. A lot of good things happened to us this year but enough bad things happened that they really cut into the good things. Once we started overcoming the bad things, a lot more good things happened. You look back at this season, look back at just the past few races, and you see what I mean."

Mayfield said that mistakes have been made, the price been paid, and hopefully the No. 12 team will be smarter because of them.

"Making good decisions and having good judgment is just a key part of this sport. It’s got to be there, not just from the driver but from the crew chief, the crew guys, the owners, everybody. You can’t give up. You can’t have a real disappointment and just call it a day. You have to scrap and fight and work hard to get anything and everything you can.

"Man, one position can be the difference at the end of the year. Passing somebody to pick it up ... beating somebody out of the pits to pick it up ... just working to fix a problem and going back out to run to pick it up. It doesn't matter how you get it, but you have to do everything you can to get it.

"You look at the teams that have won championships, whether it was recently or years ago. Look at what Bobby Labonte and his team have done. They are a really great race team, no doubt. But he does two things better than anybody else does. One, he is able to take advantage of really good cars. And two, his team never gave up and they kept fighting on their bad days, too. And three, they started racing for points during testing at Daytona. They didn’t wait until the end of the season."

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