NASCAR: Mayfield in for quite a fight
By Jim Litke
CHARLOTTE ó When NASCAR people talked about the need for speed, methamphetamines weren’t part of the conversation.
Suddenly, they’re talking about little else.
What ignited all the talk was driver Jeremy Mayfield’s come-from-behind win earlier this week in what promises to be a long and grueling legal race. Fair or not, the only way Mayfield wins ó let alone makes it to the end ó is if he turns out to a better plaintiff than driver.
Hauling NASCAR before a judge to contest his suspension for failing a May 1 drug test is like setting fire to the toll booth that sits on the only span leading back to the sport.
If he thinks the guys on the track play hardball, wait until he tries running with NASCAR’s suits in a courtroom. Fair fight or not, they’re in the image business. Instead of just bumping Mayfield, their job is to make him disappear.
“Either Jeremy or NASCAR is wrong, and I don’t know which one,” said veteran driver Mark Martin, “but whichever one is wrong is really hurting the other.”
What isn’t in doubt is who is more capable of hurting whom.
U.S. District Court Judge Graham Mullen certainly gets that.
NASCAR indefinitely suspended Mayfield for a failed drug test in May ó acknowledging on Wednesday that methamphetamines tripped the positive ó then turned the matter over to the lawyers and expected it to go away.
But Mayfield, who has denied ever using methamphetamines, had a lawyer, too. On Wednesday, Bill Diehl convinced the judge in Charlotte, that the testing program was flawed enough that barring Mayfield from the racetrack caused him more harm than any damage his presence could cause NASCAR.
Never mind that a few top drivers had filed affidavits in support of the racing circuit, saying they wouldn’t feel safe sharing the racetrack. The judge didn’t buy that argument any more than Mayfield’s lawyer.
“Who does?” Diehl said.
Keep in mind that even though Mayfield won round one, the celebration didn’t last long.
Although the temporary injunction granted him the right to enter this weekend’s race at Daytona, he didn’t turn up by Thursday’s deadline to claim a spot for his own team. Strapped for cash, he seems to make sponsors jittery, or as one small team owner put it, he’s “marked.”
It wasn’t the first time someone described Mayfield that way. Except they meant marked for stardom, not nicked by the first big drug-testing mess that landed in NASCAR’s lap.
Mayfield was a rising star nearly a decade ago, and as recently as 2004, he got another shot at a breakthrough. He squeezed into the initial “Chase for the Championship” by winning the final qualifying race in the last laps.
Hungry to promote their just-launched playoff series, NASCAR stressed the last-chance angle in a few ads. It turned out to be more accurate than Mayfield or the marketing people dreamed. He wound up leaving Ray Evernham’s operation in 2006 the same way he left Roger Penske’s a few years earlier ó with bruised feelings on both sides.
Mayfield hasn’t been offered a ride from a top-flight team since. This season, he owns his own low-budget team. He says he’s had to borrow from relatives, lay off 10 employees and sell personal assets to met his living expenses.
NASCAR hasn’t said much about its legal battle plan going forward. But with its deep pockets and non-nonsense attitude, the people in charge will do all they can to make sure he’s nowhere near the racetrack at all.