Thursday, February 12, 2009
Mayfield more than happy to be here
By Terry Blount
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Kyle Busch held off Mark Martin in a whale of a last-lap battle Thursday to win the second Gatorade Duel qualifying race.
Nice show. The brash young guy edged the old sentimental favorite, both knowing they needed only to keep the cars clean for their free ride into the Daytona 500.
But the emotion of the day, the drama that tells the real story of what this season is all about, took place a little farther back.
Jeremy Mayfield finished ninth, and AJ Allmendinger was 10th. Normally, not a big deal. In this case, it was everything.
Busch was happy in Victory Lane; Mayfield and Allmendinger were wiping away tears on pit road. The winner felt joy; the two qualifiers felt redemption. They made the field for Sunday's Daytona 500.
It was the same feeling for new team owner Tommy Baldwin in the first Duel as he watched his driver, Scott Riggs, get their one-car team in the 500.
This was a day for the working man, a glimpse of the good things that can come out of a bad situation.
Just 23 days ago, Mayfield had no car to drive and no one to drive for, so he started his own team and hoped for a miracle.
Allmendinger thought he had a guaranteed spot to start the season before NASCAR's nonsensical auction for top-35 points left him outside looking in.
So there they were Thursday, knowing they had to scratch and claw to outrace nine other non-qualified guys in the second race.
"This is unbelievable," Mayfield said. "To go from nothing a few weeks ago to this, it's overwhelming."
For the 15 guys working on Mayfield's No. 41 Toyota, it's life-changing.
"Most of these guys are volunteers," Mayfield said. "We've hired several of them, but to be honest, they haven't gotten their first paycheck. Maybe now we can pay them."
One of those volunteers ended up in the hospital before Mayfield's race. Kyle Roland, Mayfield's jackman, volunteered on Kirk Shelmerdine's crew for the first 150-mile qualifying race. But Roland was injured (awake and alert afterward) when hit by Shelmerdine's car on a pit stop.
Steve King of Michael Waltrip's crew stepped in to help Mayfield.
Allmendinger's crew came from Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. Teamwork is the reason Allmendinger will race Sunday.
RPM drivers Reed Sorenson and Elliott Sadler, both of whom had guaranteed spots, worked with Allmendinger in the draft and helped get him in the transfer spot.
"I can't thank those guys enough," Allmendinger said. "They sacrificed having a better spot in the 500, falling back to get near me to make sure I moved up."
Sadler almost lost his job to Allmendinger in the offseason. Team owner George Gillett wanted to put Allmendinger in Sadler's No. 19 Dodge and pay off Sadler's contract. Sadler filed a lawsuit to keep his ride, and it worked. But it left a frosty relationship with Allmendinger.
Sadler has said he put it behind him, emphasizing that the team always would come first. Clearly, he meant it.
"Our job [Thursday] was to do everything we could to get AJ in the [Daytona 500]," Sadler said. "It paid off. We got all four [RPM] cars in the show."
Allmendinger has a part-time ride at RPM because the team didn't have full sponsorship to run a fourth car. But until two weeks ago, he thought he had a top-35 guaranteed spot.
Penske Racing bought points from the former Bill Davis entry to get Sam Hornish in the top 35. That pushed Allmendinger back outside the top 35.
"We deserved that spot," Allmendinger said. "It was a kick in the gut. Valvoline came onboard [for Daytona] thinking we had a guaranteed spot. My team deserved it. But we could whine about it or go out there and fight our way in. That's what we did."
Fighting to survive is the theme across America these days. NASCAR is a microcosm of the economic crisis. Hundreds of Cup employees have lost their jobs.
"All of our guys were laid off from other teams," Mayfield said. "But they are quality guys that deserve to work in this business. They're hungry, just like I am."
Mayfield was fired from his ride at Evernham Motorsports (now Richard Petty Motorsports) two years ago.
"That's what motivates me," Mayfield said. "If I retire from driving, I want it to be on my own terms, not pushed to the side. You've got to dig deep. Things that happened in the past help you get by in the future. That was the case today."
Allmendinger was dropped from the Red Bull Racing Team near the end of last season. Now he's trying to earn his way and prove his worth.
"AJ and I both got a raw deal the last couple of years," Mayfield said. "No one knows how hard this stuff is. Today, we were out there running for our lives."
Good things happened. It's a positive sign for NASCAR in difficult times.
And maybe it's a good omen for all of us.
|Ever-popular Jeremy Mayfield was one of the stars of the show Thursday after racing into Sunday's Daytona 500.|
Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.