Mayfield steps on it in drive for stardom Paired with Wallace, he's quick to climb

May 31, 1998|By SANDRA MCKEE | SANDRA MCKEE,SUN STAFF

DOVER, Del. -- Jeremy Mayfield has boyish good looks. He's the kind of guy you might picture as the boy next door. He could be Wally Cleaver, the Beav's older brother.

Mayfield finds that his teammate, veteran driver Rusty Wallace, treats him like a younger brother. And in Winston Cup racing, that's not a bad thing.

"Two years ago, Rusty didn't want a teammate," said Mayfield, 29. "But the timing was right [at the end of last year], and when I went to talk to him about how he felt about it, he was excited. He said that together we could accomplish a lot of wonderful things."

The two-car team of Wallace and Mayfield came together late last season when Wallace's co-owner, Roger Penske, bought out Carl Haas and became partners with Michael Kranefuss in Mayfield's team.

Through the first 11 weeks this season, Mayfield or Wallace has led the Winston Cup points race. Last weekend, Jeff Gordon won the Coca-Cola 600 and bumped them back, but they're still very much in the hunt, with Mayfield second, 29 points behind, and Wallace four points farther back.

Today, Wallace will start on the pole and try to break his career-high 40-race winless streak in the MBNA Platinum 400 at Dover Downs International Speedway. Mayfield will start 12th and try to win for the first time since driving his first Winston Cup race in 1993.

"We're both working hard to win," Wallace said. "Our driving styles are virtually identical, and we're making each other better. Roger wants us racing each other for the championship at the end of the season."

All of this is pretty heady stuff for Mayfield.

He comes from Owensboro, Ky., not exactly a NASCAR hotbed. But back in 1981, when a 13-year-old Mayfield was racing his first go-cart, Owensboro native Darrell Waltrip was winning the first of his three Winston Cup titles, and that was enough to allow a young boy to dream.

"I loved being in something with an engine that had pedals you worked with your feet and could make run fast," Mayfield said yesterday, sitting behind a bowl of carrots and dip in the lounge of his team's car hauler. "It gave me such a feeling. It's hard to explain.

"I knew I wanted to race. I just didn't know how to go about doing it. I didn't know how to go up the ladder. Now, I sit at the top of the mountain and see I took about 25 different steps to climb the ladder."

Everyone has heard of hockey, tennis and baseball players who leave home at an early age to join junior and minor-league teams and attend specialty camps to pursue their athletic dreams.

But auto racers? They usually stay home, run the local tracks and try to save enough money to make a foray into the big time.

Mayfield didn't want to wait. At 19, he left home and headed for Nashville, Tenn., without a job or money to pursue work as a fabricator with the Earl Sadler-owned team in hopes of getting a chance to drive Sadler's race car.

He achieved that goal and then, two years later, decided to leave the comfort of Sadler's operation for the unknown.

"I could have sat there at Sadler's for the rest of my career," Mayfield said. "It was comfortable and I was making good money. But I stepped out on the limb."

He joined T. W. Taylor's operation and, four races later, Taylor was out of money, but Mayfield wasn't out of luck.

He approached Cale Yarborough for a ride in his car. That was 1994, and Mayfield acknowledges with a shy laugh that he probably sounded a bit like Tom Cruise in the movie "Days of Thunder," when he begged Yarborough, "Come on, Cale. Give me a chance. I know I can drive your car.

"That's what I said," Mayfield said. "And I had a pretty long deal with Cale. We were running good enough to classify myself as a Winston Cup driver."

But then Kranefuss came along, looking to shake up his team, and Mayfield moved again.

"When I came to Michael's team, it was terrible," Mayfield said. "It had bad cars and the crew chief had left.

"But even at that, I could see there were more resources here to get where I needed to go. Then Penske bought in, and we've gotten to the next level."

Now he and Wallace share everything, such as testing information, and help each other with their car setups. Neither team has anything better than the other.

"You've got to have two very mature drivers for a setup like this," Kranefuss said. "It's worked out almost from the beginning. There is no competition between them -- until the last two laps."

Then it's each driver for himself.

"Even at that," Mayfield said, "I'll be happy for Rusty if he wins and he'll be happy for me. We've been helping each other every step of the way. We want to be one-two in points. Whichever way that falls, it makes you're blood pump."

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