LOUDON, N.H. -- Jeremy Mayfield sits at attention on a black canvas director's chair outside his team's transporter, parked in the far reaches of the Nextel Cup garage at New Hampshire International Speedway.
A few fans mingle about, but most swarm on the opposite side of the garage, primed to chase a hasty scribble from Earnhardt or Gordon or Stewart.
The way I'm running right now and the way things are going, it's not for me. I'd rather back up a step and race with a good, competitive truck team or a good Busch team than to struggle and not make races.
Practice just ended on this crisp September Friday, and Mayfield is 38th on the board. In a former life he'd be livid, searching for blame, beating his brain against the steering wheel in search of speed. But this year is different, an ongoing education in humility.
He calls it "rock bottom," this season transfixed on going or going home. But he realizes well its value, too, which extends far beyond the realm of competition.
"I wish I had one more opportunity in a good team," said Mayfield, who will be replaced in the No. 36 Toyota at season's end. "I think you'd see a difference. I've had to go a long way down to rock bottom, now, to see and understand what it's all about.
"I've learned a lot and have a lot of experience about doing things the right way and the wrong way. I've struggled worse than I ever have [before] this year, but I still get along with every one of those guys [on my team]."
That quote carries deeper meaning than its surface value might indicate. Mayfield is viewed by some in the industry as a troubled employee. At Penske Racing he enjoyed the best run of his career, winning three times and scoring 28 top-5s. But he and Rusty Wallace struggled to get along, prompting an early departure from the team with eight races remaining in the 2001 season.
From there he moved to Evernham Motorsports' No. 19, where he qualified for the inaugural Chase in dramatic fashion by winning the final race of the regular season. But last season he and team owner Ray Evernham had a falling out, resulting in a lawsuit filed by Mayfield on grounds that the owner's personal relationship with driver Erin Crocker was a distraction to the organization.
Mayfield is aware of the criticism, but doesn't consider himself problematic. Just honest, really.
"I don't really have a problem," he said. "Anything I've ever had a problem with, I look at it as black and white or I'm not going to say it. I don't bitch about things that aren't [accurate]. I don't say a car's black when it's green.
"If I say it, it's happening. It's not about getting along with people. I can probably get along with everybody in the garage area."
Even at Evernham?
"Everything I ever said or complained about at Evernham Motorsports was not a lie," Mayfield said. "And that 19 car is still running the same way it ran, or worse, than when I was there. It wasn't like I was just talking my head off. Nothing against them at all, but it's the truth. It's how it is. Except now all three of [their cars] are running that bad.
"I feel like that should build some credibility with what I'm saying. I'm not going to talk s---. I'm not going to sit here and tell you [lies]. If you and I are sitting here talking I'm not lying to you. I'm not going to and I don't have to. I could easily tell you how great everything is around here [at BDR].
"That's what a lot of guys do, but come to find out it's not [true]. Then I look like a jackass telling you a bunch of [lies]."
Mediocrity still stings, but not nearly as badly as it once did. And not nearly as badly as it did before it became painfully obvious it would be a way of life for an entire season.
"It's probably been the hardest year of my whole career," he said. "I guess it shouldn't have been. I looked at all that and took it for granted that we'd just make it through it, that we'd be all right. But once we got behind there's no catching up. You're not going to jump back in the top 35."
He admits vastly underestimating the difficulty his team would face with a start-up crew in a series that guarantees qualification to 35 of the 43 teams in the field each week. Teams not among those 35 teams lose ground so quickly they rarely recover.
Mayfield still hasn't recovered from missing the season-opening Daytona 500. And at this point, with nine chances left to audition for a new job, he just hopes his career will recover.
"I always said if I've got to do this for other reasons than because I love to do it then I need to do something different," Mayfield said. "That's what my mindset is right now. I'd love to stay in the sport. It's what I've always dreamed about and what I've always done.
"But the way I'm running right now and the way things are going, it's not for me. I'd rather back up a step and race with a good competitive truck team or a good Busch team than to struggle and not make races."
Mayfield will be replaced at season's end by former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve. He isn't sure what's next. He has spoken with some teams, but there's not much out there.
Discouragement is difficult for Mayfield to hide. It's a readily obvious expression on his face. He's the jovial type, but in discussing 2007, the smiles are forced. But as hard as it's been, as humbling as it's been, he's not ready to hang up the helmet just yet.
"I don't know about retirement, I'm 38 years old," he said. "What's bad is I know I can get the job done. I'm probably a better driver right now than I've ever been in my whole career. My personal life is the best it's ever been in. I don't have financial problems. I'm not broke.
"I'm not going to lay down on you, not afraid to wreck. I've been through all that. I'm a better driver than I've ever been right now. If somebody needs a driver, I'm available. If somebody wants to take a chance on Jacques Villeneuve or Regan Smith, that's cool. That's great. That's what the sport's all about.
"But I'm going to continue to race somewhere, doing something."
So Marty ...
What's the hold-up with [Tony] Stewart signing an extension with Gibbs? Right after the announcement was made about Gibbs and Toyota, I read that Gibbs was signing Stewart to an extension. Now I haven't heard anything and I'm wondering if Tony isn't happy with the move to Toyota.
-- Jeff, Broad Brook, Conn.
Stewart said last weekend he's not interested in actively pursuing a contract extension until the 2007 Chase is complete. For now, he just wants to concentrate on racing, Jeff.
Does Junior own his own name, or does Teresa still own it? Or does she get a percent of it? Thank you for your time, please answer my question.
-- Dawn, Dallas
Junior owns his name, Dawn. He and Teresa Earnhardt agreed to terms legally in June 2006 to transfer the rights of his name back to him.
That was a huge development, because he no longer needed her permission to use his own name in licensing and endorsement deals.
Frosted Flakes or Raisin Bran?
-- Cyndi, Omaha, Neb.
Raisin Bran every time, Cyndi. Personally, I mix my Raisin Bran with Corn Chex and throw some banana on top. Stellar.
I saw where you said last weekend that Kevin Harvick isn't happy with his Busch program. Can you give some more details on that in your column for me?
-- Rambo, Kentucky
Sure, Sly. Harvick started his NASCAR Busch Series operation five years ago to have a little fun in his spare time.
These days the team requires more than spare time, and it's not always fun.
So at the conclusion of the 2007 season, he plans to re-evaluate his Busch Series program. Harvick told me last weekend he's just not having as much fun as he'd like. And that's the purpose.
"I don't know that it's necessarily the future," Harvick said of his two-car Busch operation. "Right now it's still what I like to do with my spare time. It's something we're definitely going to evaluate at the end of the year to see where we're at, because it still has to be fun and sometimes it's not."
I'm a huge Jeff Burton fan. He hasn't been up front as much as I'd like to see in the COT races. Even last week, when [Clint] Bowyer was so dominant, Burton was nowhere to be found. What gives?
-- John Sullivan, Virginia
Burton doesn't disagree with you, John. He told me all three RCR teams are struggling to catch up with the COT. He said they all entered competition Sunday at Loudon with completely different setups, fishing for answers. Obviously Bowyer and Gil Martin hit on something.
"We're just not as good as we need to be," Burton said. "The frustrating thing for me and Scott [Miller, crew chief] is we haven't progressed. If anything, we've gotten worse."
And it's not for lack of testing, either.
"Any time somebody wants to count how many tests they've been to, I'll lay mine out -- I bet I've been to more than most people have," Burton said. "That hasn't worked for us. We're clearly in a situation of needing to be better.
"But going to Dover I feel good about it, as stupid as that sounds. To run like we did the last two weeks and to tell you we'll be fine at Dover is crazy, but I believe it. We'll get smarter and learn more."
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.