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Going In Circles

Mayfield Returns to Fontana, Trying to Straighten Out His Season

April 26, 2001|SHAV GLICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After what happened to Jeremy Mayfield in last year's Winston Cup race at California Speedway, coming back to defend his title Sunday in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 should be a lark for Roger Penske's driver.

How's this for a winning scenario? Mayfield qualified 24th, fell more than a lap behind, the temperature in his oil tank--mounted directly behind the driver's seat--soared to 340 degrees, his engine quit after he had worked his way to the front, and after the race the team was fined $25,000 for having too low of a roof line.

Despite all that, Mayfield scored the second victory of his six-year career in Winston Cup racing.

"If you're looking for a team overcoming just about every obstacle you could throw at them, that would be my . . . bunch last year at Fontana," said the 31-year-old driver from Owensboro, Ky. "From the problems with the oil cooler lines to a problem on the restart right at the end of the race, we were facing a lot of stuff. But everybody kept pulling together, nobody gave up and we won the race.

"I can't think of a sweeter ending to a week."

Since then, except for a last-lap victory over Dale Earnhardt in last June's Pocono 500, things have not gone so well for Mayfield.

He suffered a head injury while practicing for the Brickyard 400, missed two races, and has not won since in 22 starts, 13 last year and nine in 2001. Although he finished third at Darlington and Bristol, Mayfield also finished 30th or worse in four other races. He stands 28th in points, disappointing considering he was 11th in 1999 and seventh in 1998.

Fontana's two-mile oval may be the turning point.

"I'd guess just about every driver would tell you the same thing--the most important race of the season is always the next one and your favorite track is always the one where you run best," he said. "California is one of the tracks I really like. I don't think I'm in the minority there, but I really like the place. It's a good 'racy' track and it's fun to drive."

Only two-time winner Jeff Gordon has had a better four-year career at California Speedway than Mayfield, who finished seventh in 1999 and second in 1998. He was 12th in the 1997 inaugural after running out of gas while running fourth.

"When you feel like you're going to have a good car, it's always the best track you've ever raced at, the best place anyone ever had a race and you wonder why they aren't all like that track," he said.

"California is a little like Michigan but not as much as you might think. It's a lot like the difference between Daytona and Talladega. Those two are close to the same length and same layout but how you approach them with a race car is totally different. Michigan and California are pretty much the same way.

"Michigan is the speed track and California the handling track. You still have to handle at Michigan and you still have to have plenty of horsepower at California, but your approach to them is a lot different. At California, you move around the place pretty quickly. You go well over 180 mph there, and that's a pretty stout pace. To get to that kind of speed, you need the horsepower, but you have to be handling."

The qualifying record at California is 186.061 mph, set last year by Mike Skinner and the cars keep close to that pace during the race under green-flag conditions.

"When you get right down to it, what you need, wherever you are, is luck, horsepower and aerodynamics," Mayfield said. "Get all those working for you and it can be a good day."

Like the one he had last year at Fontana.

"Before the race, we felt we had a winning car, even though we had to start 24th. We ran real good [late Saturday] in Happy Hour. When the race got going, we moved right up to the front. Then it started getting a little hot.

"The temperature gauges started moving higher and higher, and the seat was getting warm. We finally pitted to try and fix things. We lost a lap as the guys went under the hood and couldn't find anything. The oil was getting hot and we knew it, but we couldn't figure out what was wrong. After another caution we went back out and on the restart moved in front of [race leader] Skinner, so when another [caution flag] came out, we could make up our lap and get back with the leaders.

"We kept making up positions, but the oil cooler kept getting hotter and hotter. The guys threw ice over me every time we came into the pits, trying to keep me cooled down. The oil was holding up but [crew chief Peter Sospenzo] was worried about me. He asked me several times if I needed a relief driver. The seat was burning but those guys in the pits weren't giving up, so I wasn't giving up in the car.

"Right toward the end, about Lap 225 [of 250], I got around [race leader] Mark Martin on a restart and pulled away. The car and seat were still really hot but it's funny how these things go, I didn't feel it half as much when I was out front."

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