Mayfield Ready To Defend
June 12, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
In the final turn of the Pocono 500, Mayfield passed Dale Earnhardt to win the race. That fact is undisputed. How he did it – and how Mayfield was perceived afterward – are different animals.
Some say he hit Earnhardt on purpose. Some say Mayfield simply got Earnhardt loose by disturbing the air behind Earnhardt’s car.
Some lauded Mayfield as a hero. Others called him – well, we choose not to print that at this time. Either way, Mayfield goes back to Pocono this weekend as the defending champion.
“Last year’s race was really something,” Mayfield said. “I heard a lot about it then, and I’ve heard a lot about it since. It was a big deal at the time. Beating Dale Earnhardt was pretty special. As many times as Earnhardt beat people, beating him once like that has got to be special.
“It probably means even more now after what happened in February (Earnhardt died in a crash in the Daytona 500). I would have loved to be in that situation again with him. I don’t know how it would come out, but I would have loved to be in that situation again.”
Obviously, that won’t happen. But Mayfield, for many reasons, will always cherish that race. A victory in Winston Cup racing is quite an accomplishment, and beating Earnhardt to do it adds significance.
“You have to admit, it was a pretty exciting finish,” Mayfield said. “NASCAR racing was pretty well made on last-lap passes and hard racing, and Dale and this Mobil 1 bunch were able to give the fans just that.
“A lot of people have said a lot of different things, but it really was just hard-nosed racing there at the end. I still haven’t seen any tapes, not where I actually sat down and really studied it, and I still can’t tell you for sure whether we touched or whether I took the air off of his car or what.
“There are a lot of different opinions, but I’m not sure what happened, and I don’t think Dale ever knew for sure. When you’re running these cars almost a football field a second, things tend to happen in a big hurry.”
Mayfield found out how fast things happen the weeks after that race. Though he had won before, Mayfield wasn’t exactly NASCAR’s most popular driver. The Pocono race set off a firestorm of reaction – both good and bad – that Mayfield hadn’t seen before or since.
“I heard from a lot of people after that race,” Mayfield said. “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 and congratulate our race team. Winning is a good feeling anytime you do it. It’s something we’d like to do more of, believe me.”
Winning at Pocono has nearly become a habit for Mayfield. He scored his first Winston Cup victory in the spring race there in 1998, won last year’s spring race and should have won the fall race.
He led 31 laps and was in front coming off Turn 2 on the final lap of the Pennsylvania 500. But a cut tire ended his chance for a season sweep.
“I’m not sure which fell quicker that Sunday: the tire or my heart,” Mayfield said. “I’ve always heard when you are in that situation, you start hearing strange noises and wondering what’s going to happen to you. All I was thinking was how fast Rusty (Wallace) and Jeff (Burton) were moving, if they had enough to catch me and what I would do if they did. I didn’t hear anything until the tire cut. I guess the next thing I heard was my heart falling.
“No, I didn’t think I was going to start crying, but I wasn’t planning any parties either. It was pretty heartbreaking for all of us. These guys had worked so hard and we’ve been right on the verge of winning just about every race all summer. But we know that trophy didn’t say ‘Pocono 499' on it, and if somebody besides us took it home, I’m glad it was Rusty and those guys.”
Still, Mayfield had a bit of a sore spot for Pocono. As much as he likes it, Mayfield is looking for some payback. Perhaps that sounds strange, given he won a race in June he perhaps should not have, then lost a race he perhaps should have won.
But racers don’t think like that. They think they should win every race.
“As good a time as we’ve had at Pocono the past few years, we’re going in there this week feeling the track owes us one,” Mayfield said. “I guess that doesn’t sound very nice, but the race last July was really a heartbreaker for us. Even after the big win in June, going from the front to 10th between the next-to-last turn and the finish line really hurt.
“We’re going back into that place this week loaded for bear, figuring the track owes us something and figuring this Mobil 1 bunch still has a little something for the track. We’ve had a great car there in the past, fantastic cars last year. And we’re looking to pick up right where we left off.”
And that’s running up front, leading laps and being in contention to win.
“Pocono has always been one of my favorite tracks,” Mayfield said. “I can’t tell you for sure if it’s been one of my favorites because I run well there, or I run well there because it’s one of my favorites. It really doesn’t make any difference what caused what. I’m just glad we’re heading back. Believe me, if NASCAR ever decides they want to run three or four or five races at Pocono every year, they can count on me to be a big-time supporter.”