No wiggle room for suspended Mayfield

Now that's zero tolerance.

On Saturday afternoon, Jeremy Mayfield inexplicably traded in his near-folk-hero stock car racing status to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez as the sports world's most notorious drug users during one of its darkest weeks.

No matter what he does during what might remain of his racing career, the soon-to-be 40-year-old will forever be known as the first Cup Series driver suspended under NASCAR's still-new random drug-testing policy.

Now, for as long as NASCAR wishes it to be so, the five-time Cup Series race winner and current driver-owner will not be allowed to drive a race car, own a race car, or even be around a race car while it is in use during a NASCAR race weekend.

He's on auto racing's Exile Island and he has no one to blame but himself.

As league spokesman Jim Hunter read off the names of Mayfield and two crew members who also tested positive during random testing conducted at Richmond one week ago, he was visibly straining to suppress personal disappointment and more than a touch of anger. He felt betrayed. Hunter, like all race fans, has long been a Jeremy Mayfield fan. And why not?

The kid with a haircut so bad it was cute came to Charlotte in the early 1990s from his hometown of Owensboro, Ky., to chase his NASCAR dream. He swept floors and worked as a fabricator, then waltzed through a few secondhand rides before rocketing up the ladder in cars owned by Cale Yarborough, Roger Penske and Ray Evernham. He won over fans by punting the un-puntable Dale Earnhardt to win at Pocono and had them cheering again when he won at Richmond during a do-or-die night to make the cut for the inaugural Chase for the Cup.

Throughout the spring of 2009 he'd won over a whole new legion of followers with his throwback decision to field his own team in an age when being a driver-owner is widely regarded as career and financial suicide.

Turns out he had a different kind of self-destruct mechanism in place.

We don't know what banned substance Mayfield took. We know that it wasn't alcohol, which is on the league's banned substance list during race weekends once it reaches a certain blood-alcohol level. And few are buying into the hot garage rumor that he'd produced the positive with allergy medicine (Dr. David Black, NASCAR's drug liaison, told ESPN.com's David Newton that Claritin could theoretically be a trigger, but that the threshold was extremely high). Even fewer are showing faith in the "he mixed together a bunch of over-the-counter stuff to make a homemade remedy" theory.

In the end, what it was doesn't really matter. Fertility drugs, cough syrup, cocaine … whatever. If the league determines that someone is ingesting a substance that will impair his ability to drive a 3,400-pound mechanical beast at 190 mph, no matter how slight that impairment might be, he has no business being on the racetrack. Ever.

Zero tolerance.

Under the "reasonable suspicion" policy of the past, drivers such as Tyler Walker, Shane Hmiel and Kevin Grubb (who died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound on Wednesday) were suspended after they had clearly been using hard drugs during the same period of their lives when they were participating in NASCAR races. Then 14 months ago, suspended driver Aaron Fike admitted to ESPN The Magazine -- more specifically, he admitted to me -- that he'd used heroin on the same days that he'd been behind the wheel of a NASCAR Truck Series ride.

In an instant, NASCAR was being attacked from all angles -- media, drivers and drug-testing experts -- for the gaping holes in its two-decades-old zero tolerance substance abuse policy. That criticism was absolutely justified. Terms such as "reasonable suspicion" and "we can test anyone at anytime" were groundbreaking when they were introduced in 1988, but in today's more advanced OxyContin and meth-fueled age, the effectiveness of the rarely updated policy had all but vanished. Within days NASCAR chairman Brian France formed a team to investigate the problem. Five months later he announced the new random drug-testing policy that went into effect this season.

"You have to have total trust in that person who is diving into that corner side-by-side with you," Kevin Harvick said at the time. "If he's drunk or stoned or whatever there are no guarantees that you're coming out of the corner alive. If there's even a hint that someone may be doing it, their ass has to be gone."

And thus, Mayfield and two others are indeed gone. As saddened as Hunter and his fellow league officials clearly were to read Mayfield's name, deep down they can also be proud that they have done the right thing and devised a real, tough, bitingly effective substance-abuse policy.

Thanks to Fike's admission, as painful as it was, zero tolerance is no longer a hollow statement of hope. It's a promise. Three men found that out Saturday afternoon at Darlington.

As Fike made his confession to me in a nondescript breakfast booth in Galesburg, Ill., the more he talked the bolder he became. He admitted that he was lucky he hadn't killed someone on the track and even luckier that he hadn't killed himself off it. He said that if the league tested half of pit road they'd be shocked at how many people they would bust.

Deep down he knew that every word he spoke further drove a stake into the heart of his chances of ever fulfilling his racing dreams. Driving at the highest level would likely never happen again.

Then he looked up, bowed his neck, and accepted his new lot in life.

"If the problems I've had can end up saving some lives and opening the eyes of the people who run racing, then that's not all bad," he said. "There's nothing wrong with being the guy who helped make drugs in the sport go away."

On Saturday evening, we took one more step closer.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.