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Mayfield Manages to Come Through When Heat Is On

Auto racing: Already facing NASCAR inquiry, he overcomes 340-degree oil temperatures to win at California Speedway.

May 01, 2000|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FONTANA — The heat in Jeremy Mayfield's Mobil 1 Ford was so intense he nearly needed a relief driver, but he hung on to win the NAPA Auto Parts 500 Sunday and extend NASCAR's streak of different Winston Cup winners to 10 races.

The victory came for a team that was already feeling the heat from NASCAR before the race for allegedly having illegal fuel in the tank two weeks ago when Mayfield finished 14th at Talladega, Ala. Then after the race, Mayfield was the subject of scrutiny again when a post-race inspection found the winner's car too low, but NASCAR said the results would stand.

That allowed Mayfield, winless in his last 61 starts, to win while holding off challenges by Bobby Labonte and rookie Matt Kenseth before an estimated 115,000 sun-soaked fans at California Speedway.

It wasn't easy.

In addition to withstanding 340-degree oil temperatures that seared his back and blistered his feet, Mayfield needed to make up a lap lost early in the 3-hour 20-minute 50-second race because of problems with the car's oil line. When he finally reached the lead, he lost his ignition.

"I don't know what it is, maybe you have to endure the worst if you want to have the best," he said after receiving intravenous fluids before his post-race news conference. "I'm blistered up, for sure, but you've got to suck it up some times. We needed this in the worst way, more than anything in the world."

To give Mayfield some relief, his crew threw pieces of ice through the window during pit stops. The problem was an oil tank that sits five inches from the driver and the gauge was reading 340 degrees.

"One time I was like, 'I'm not gonna make it,' you know. I've never gotten out of a car, but I was burned up and didn't think I was gonna get to the end, but they filled me up with ice and I took off from there."

Three laps from the end of the 250-lap race, Mayfield had the lead on a restart, but as he and Labonte raced for the first turn, Mayfield lost his ignition. Labonte, diving low, passed Mayfield, but was startled by Mayfield's abrupt slowing. Then Mayfield hit his reserve ignition switch and surged ahead. From then on, he was in control.

"Going into Turn 1, I had a good start and all of a sudden it quit running. My ignition went off and I had no clue," Mayfield said. "I just had my hand up trying to motion him [Labonte] to go by because that could have been a big wreck if I would have switched boxes and it wasn't that."

Mayfield frantically hit the switch button and the ignition came back.

"I was thinking all kinds of things, like we went a lap down, made it up, went all the way from 42nd back up to the front and then this."

Labonte said the sudden slowing startled him.

"I thought I could make a run off of [Turn] 2, but I went in there and he kind of stopped on the outside. It kind of scared me because I thought I was going to run into the back of him. So I had to go low and it sort of messed up my momentum and messed my plan up.

"I kind of bogged down too much when I jumped on the brakes when he let off the gas."

Before that there were few exciting moments despite the fact that there were 22 lead changes among 15 drivers. Kenseth, one day after winning the Busch series race on the same track, led 119 laps, nearly half the race.

Labonte said he felt that Kenseth would have been the winner if there had not been two caution flags in the last 25 laps. Kenseth agreed.

"Yeah, that's right, but there were two cautions at the end and we didn't [win]. I mean, a 4 1/2- or five-second lead, plus we were running a tenth faster with 30 laps to go, so, yes, we were probably going to win the race.

"But that's not the way it turned out, so we just need to learn from this and get a little stronger as a team and maybe make a different decision next time."

Mayfield and crew chief Peter Sospenzo were noncommittal when asked about the potential suspension or fine expected from NASCAR.

"I don't know what to say about it because nothing has come out yet," Mayfield said. "We'll know on Tuesday what's going on, but these past two weeks have been pretty weird for us."

Asked if the team was on a mission this week because of the cloud hanging over it, Sospenzo said: "We have been on a mission all year long, not just this week."

A bigger problem Sunday for Mayfield was falling a lap behind and having to move up through a pack of cars storming around the two-mile D-shaped oval at 180 mph.

Mayfield lost the lap on his first pit stop when he pitted with the leaders and then came in again on the next lap because his oil gauge reported overheating.

"Something in the oil tank or the oil gauge messed up. We never fixed it." he said.

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