Win gets Mayfield off bubble, into Chase

14th before Richmond, driver beats Earnhardt to keep racing at No. 9

Auto Racing

September 12, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - Jeremy Mayfield had farther to go than most in the Chevy Rock and Roll 400 Nextel Cup race - and he did.

Last night was the night for drivers who had a chance to make the field for The Chase to the NASCAR Nextel Cup, the final 10-race dash that will determine this year's champion.

And Mayfield, who hadn't won since the Pocono 500 in June 2000 - 143 races ago - was 14th in the standings, 479 points behind the leader and 55 points out of the top 10, the probable final qualifying position for The Chase.

All he did was average 98.946 mph to lead 151 of the 400 laps and beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. to win by 4.928 seconds.

That effort moved him up five positions, to ninth in the top 10 standings and into the postseason party. It was also the first victory of the season for a Ray Evernham owned Dodge.

"I can't believe it," said Mayfield, 35. "This is the best team I've ever been with. It has been a really tough couple years, but now it has all come together. We realized we needed to wake up or we were going to be out of the championship rase.

"I couldn't see us getting in unless we won."

Competitors didn't know what to expect coming into this race. No one had ever been in this position before. NASCAR's new scoring system this season enables the top 10 drivers and any driver within 400 points of the leader after the Richmond race to qualify for The Chase and have a chance at the title, as points would be readjusted and tightened, with just five points separating each position.

With nine drivers still competing for four available positions in the top 10 last night, there was all kinds of wild speculation.

Would teammates try to help other teammates by blocking? Would someone try to take out the top two leaders in the standings to open up The Chase field to drivers within 400 points of leader Jimmie Johnson?

"Well, no one kidnapped Jimmie before the race," said driver Kevin Harvick, in 15th and 480 behind Johnson going into the race. "I guess we're on our own."

When it was over, 10 drivers were in the field for The Chase, while five, who still had the chance to make it last night, didn't. Of those in the top 10 coming into the night, only rookie Kasey Kahne was bumped out, replaced by Mayfield, as he had handling problems that resulted in a crash on Lap 207.

The race was surprisingly calm through the first 150 laps, as Johnson and Jeff Gordon and then Mayfield and Kurt Busch (who would run out of gas while leading with seven laps to go) dominated. But on Lap 178 things changed.

Driver Casey Mears had held off Dale Jarrett in their struggle to be the top running lap car and in position for a "Lucky Dog" pass that goes to the lapped car running closest to the lead lap when a caution comes out. But he had no sooner cleared Jarrett than he was hit from behind by Jimmy Spencer.

Spencer and Jarrett would affect the results of at least 11 other drivers when he was spun out by Jarrett about 120 laps later, trapping a number of front-runners who had pitted early - including Ryan Newman, Bobby Labonte and Matt Kenseth - at the tail end of the lead lap.

But in this initial confrontation, Spencer and Mears collected the biggest prize - Johnson - in their wake.

Gordon, who would recover to finish third in the race and take the top spot in the standings, also spun into the grass, as did Earnhardt, who, like Johnson and Gordon, was already locked in for the postseason. Mark Martin was racing to hold on to 10th place in the top 10 standings, and he also spun.

The incident opened the qualifying window to 13 drivers to be within the 400-point window and irritated Johnson. He was racing to win and maintain his first-place standing into the final 10-race sprint.

But once he went out of the race, the 400-point window opened.

"I'm just blown away how this can happen," said Johnson, who would return to the race 58 laps down. "This a terrible deal. This is the way this points system works. This could happen at Homestead [in the final race of the season]. You have desperate guys doing desperate things. That's the thing I don't like about this points system. You can have somebody acting like this, like a bunch of idiots, take you completely out of the championship."

(Results, 18e)

Chase to Nextel Cup

Drivers in the title field

1. Jeff Gordon 3,602/5,050

2. Jimmie Johnson 3,542/5,045

3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. 3,541/5,040

4. Tony Stewart 3,410/5,035

5. Matt Kenseth 3,337/5,030

6. Elliott Sadler 3,316/5,025

7. Kurt Busch 3,309/5,020

8. Mark Martin 3,213/5,015

9. Jeremy Mayfield 3,193/5,010

10. Ryan Newman 3,186/5,005

Just missed

11. Jamie McMurray 3,171

12. Kasey Kahne 3,158

13. Bobby Labonte 3,137

14. Kevin Harvick 3,129

15. Dale Jarrett 3,100

Note: The points for the top 10 drivers are converted to new totals to prevent others from competing for the Nextel Cup title.

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