Mayfield still having a good time

Jeremy Mayfield may be wearing a different T-shirt under his driver's uniform this weekend. Then again, considering mayhem is always a blink of an eye away at Talladega Superspeedway, it might be wise to have it freshly laundered and ready to wear at a moment's notice.

The T-shirt that he unveiled at Dover was meant in fun. But that fun most assuredly came with a message attached -- not that one was necessary after Richard Childress placed Robby Gordon on probation for triggering the accident at New Hampshire that seriously dashed the title hopes of both Mayfield and Tony Stewart.

"The T-shirt says, 'I want you to stay far, far away from me,'" Mayfield said with a laugh at Dover. "Ya'll probably know who 'you' is. It's pretty cool. It's just a funny little joke. We're trying to get over [New Hampshire]. It's bright orange if that tells you anything. I thought we'd have a little fun. I know Robby has had a tough week. That's behind us, but we thought we'd come here and have a little fun with it anyway."

Outside of that wreck, Mayfield's had plenty of fun this season. It's a far cry from a year ago, when Mayfield's future was the topic of weekly speculation. There was talk that Dodge wanted another driver in the car, but Mayfield and owner Ray Evernham stuck together and now one wonders why anyone thought they should split.

Of course, there was reason for such talk last year. For much of the season, Mayfield and crew chief Kenny Francis didn't click and everything seemed a struggle. It's a far cry from this season.

Still, Mayfield needs a little luck on his side at Talladega for this Sunday's EA Sports 500. This may be his best chance to get back into title contention, but he'll need a solid finish, preferably in the top five, and it would help greatly if a few drivers in front of him encounter problems.

Talladega's as much luck as it is skill. A fast car helps, but fast cars can end up in the middle of a multi-car pileup, too. Mayfield figures he'll have an immediate idea Friday as to what type of car he'll have for the weekend.

"Something I learned a long time ago about Talladega, you're either real good off the truck or you're not. Whatever you've got is pretty much what you have all weekend," Mayfield says. "All you can hope for is to have a good enough car to run up front and, hopefully, stay away from the trouble.

"There are still going to be cars running in a pack, so it's definitely a test of nerves from the green flag to the checkered flag. Staying focused is something you know you have to do. You don't have the opportunity to take a mental break; it's not an option. You try not to be the one that makes the mistake that creates the problem."

Now in its fourth full season, Evernham Motorsports doesn't have years and years of restrictor-plate experience to fall back on, like Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Hendrick Motorsports do. That could hurt Mayfield's chances, but he did win the Talladega pole in May 2003 with Evernham, his third career pole at the track.

Mayfield sees EMS making continual improvement when it comes to plate racing.

"You don't see new teams come into Daytona and Talladega and immediately run good. It just takes time to get there," Mayfield says. "Teams that run good at those tracks are the teams that have been around for a while -- teams with experience. The teams that run good have had the R&D time and collected a lot of data. We're getting there with the two cars from Evernham Motorsports. We're getting better each time out, and that's because we've been able to utilize the data we collect at each restrictor plate race."

Still, the strong qualifying runs haven't really paid off as Mayfield has just one top five in 20 starts at Talladega. And that fifth-place finish came back in 1998.

Then again, Mayfield's been a surprise this year, so it might not be wise to rule him out this weekend.

Asked if Mayfield can beat Jeff Gordon -- who won three of his Winston Cup titles with Evernham as his crew chief -- Evernham said there's no reason why not.

"People do it every day," Evernham said. "There's certain times that trigger different athletes and a guy steps up and they don't know what pushes them over the edge. Maybe they've had that ability all along and something brings it out. Jeremy is as focused and as determined as I've ever seen him. He knows he's got some great competition, but maybe he's had it within him to do it all along and now he sees it and believes it."

That certainly looked to be the case for Mayfield at Richmond, when he parlayed a victory into a Chase for the Nextel Cup berth. It was his first win with Evernham and it came at the most opportune time imaginable.

Asked what advice he's giving Mayfield as he chases a championship, Evernham gave a simple response.

"The only advice I can give to the whole team is to do the best they can," Evernham said. "They've got to do what got 'em here and what got 'em here is running hard and working hard and trying to pay attention to basics. I think right now Jeremy is as much on top of his game as he's ever been. His confidence is up. He's been fast every time he's in the car.

"Their confidence is up and I'm just going to let 'em go wide open. Their only shot to win the thing is to do what they did at Richmond, go and do everything they can do. That's what I want them to do. I don't want them to hold back. I don't want them to try to points race. I want them to go out there and lead every lap and win."

That may not happen at Talladega, but both Mayfield and teammate Kasey Kahne have been strong at tracks such as Kansas, Charlotte and Atlanta, so there's still time for Mayfield to work his way back into the hunt.

Doing so, though, will mean avoiding any further pitfalls -- which is why he has to hope Robby Gordon paid attention to his T-shirt last week. Of course, Mayfield says it's simply a shirt he found while his wife Shania was browsing the Internet, but if so it was quite the timely coincidence.

"I'm not joking. I did not have [the T-shirt] made," Mayfield says. "My wife was looking on the Internet and we were trying to have a cool shirt to have some fun this weekend, not for any particular reason or anything. There happened to be a real bright orange shirt that we found that said, 'I want you to stay far, far away from me.' I thought it would be cool to have that just for the heck of it."

Mayfield's a kidder off the track, but he's quite serious once the green flag drops. And at this point, he says there's no holding back.

"I think we're going to have to do that [repeat the Richmond performance] every week from here on out to try to rebound from this thing," he says of the New Hampshire wreck. "That's what this team seems to be really good at.

"We get knocked down and we get chewed up and spit out and all that stuff, booed off the stage, but we come right back. I feel like that's why we're like an underdog-type race team. When the going gets tough we feel like we perform our best. When you've got a race team like that you're going to win races and hopefully the championship."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.