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Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Nascar Driver Preview: Jeremy Mayfield

Jeremy Mayfield
Age: 37
#36 OTC 360 Toyota
Crew Chief: Tommy Baldwin
Nextel Cup Stats
Starts Wins Top 5's Top 10's Top 15's
Poles Avg Start Avg Finish Points Rank Driver Rating
0 24.3
Running at Finish Lead Lap Finish Laps Led DNF Earnings
19 9

At least Mayfield has an appropriate sponsor for 2007. OTC 360 can help relieve the heartburn that was his ’06 season. Without dwelling too much on the tabloid-esque drama, here’s a quick summary. Prior to 2006, Ray Evernham moved Mayfield’s team director Kenny Francis to Kasey Kahne’s team. Mayfield struggled so badly that he fell out of the top 35 in owner’s points. After the Brickyard in August he was replaced by Bill Elliott, which led to Mayfield filing a lawsuit against Evernham. He was eventually replaced by Elliott Sadler. Meanwhile Mayfield signed with Bill Davis Racing to drive a new second car in 2007. There were other, less important details that came out on both sides of the Mayfield-Evernham squabble that didn’t relate to his on-track performance. They only made things ugly for both parties and left Mayfield without a ride for the rest of the season.

Whatever story you believe, you can’t deny Mayfield’s ugly results in 2006. He was one of seven drivers to qualify for the Chase in 2004 and 2005. In 2006 he struggled to stay in the top 35 in owner’s points.

In 2005 he made the Chase on the strength of finishing races on the lead lap. If he wasn’t racking up top fives, at least he was consistently staying out of trouble. There was a lot of talk about how the Dodge teams struggled with the new Charger, so the fact that Mayfield rarely ran up front was excused.

This past year, it was more obvious that something with Mayfield’s driving style didn’t work with what Evernham’s program. The team figured out some key elements with the Charger. Kasey Kahne won three of the first 12 races. Scott Riggs had three top tens and one pole in the same span. Riggs also had several other races where he ran in the top ten the majority of the race. Meanwhile Mayfield struggled from the start.

It wasn’t even a case of bad luck or getting caught up in other’s wrecks. He had two DNF’s all year. It was more a case of Mayfield flat out struggling. He only had four top twenty finishes all year and zero top tens. Mayfield also had a 53.6 driver rating for the season, placing him with the back markers and field fillers.

The relative high point was a two race stretch in the spring. He qualified 2nd at both Charlotte and Dover before finishing 15th and 18th respectively. Mayfield had his best race at Dover. He led 14 laps and ran in the top 20 all day. It was also his highest driver rating, 82.5. For context, an 82.5 is about a 15th place car. Unfortunately, he would not have another finish better than 22nd.

It’s hard to believe Mayfield’s claims that Evernham didn’t provide enough support for the 19 car. Mayfield’s entire fleet of top 15 caliber cars moved with Francis to Kahne’s team. Meanwhile Mayfield’s team built all new cars. Whatever technological advances Evernham discovered during the off-season would have been applied to the new batch of cars. Further, Sadler jumped in and finished tenth in his first race.

Moving forward, Mayfield is certainly better than his 2006 season. He is also not an elite driver. He is sandwiched somewhere in the middle. Given the right equipment he can compete for the occasional win but is not going to lead a lot of laps or threaten for a top ten every week.

For 2007, it turns out falling out of the top 35 was good practice for Mayfield. Qualifying will be the biggest hurdle for all the Toyota teams initially. Making the first five races for Mayfield is paramount. If he doesn’t, his season could slide very quickly.

Former Evernham crew chief Tommy Baldwin will call the shots for Mayfield this year. Ironically Baldwin began 2006 as Sadler’s crew chief at RYR before being released to join Bill Davis Racing. Before Mayfield signed, Baldwin stepped in as Michael Waltrip’s crew chief to finish the year.

Mayfield’s best tracks on tour are Dover, Darlington and Pocono. He has two wins, four top 5’s and nine top 10’s at the triangular Pocono.

While 2007 might be a disjointed year for Mayfield, the long term future is solid for BDR and Toyota. Bill Davis is a powerhouse in the truck series and with Toyota’s support will now turn its focus to Cup. For the first time in four years Davis will have manufacturer support for his Cup teams. Davis will have two fully sponsored Cup cars for the first time since 2003.

When setting goals for Mayfield and the #36 car, it’s important to remember that this is a brand new team with a brand new manufacturer. To qualify for at least 90% of the races (32+), get inside the top 35 in points, and capture one or two top tens. If all of these things happen it sets a nice foundation for 2008. If Mayfield struggles to qualify or can’t run well enough to stay inside the top 35, things could get frustrating. Mayfield can’t get caught up in short term success in ’07, when the team won’t be ready to really compete until 2008.

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