In the Hot Seat
Jeremy Mayfield won despite an oil tank that nearly baked him alive
If there was one thing apparent at California Speedway last weekend, it was that the NASCAR racing gods are fickle. They're by turns vengeful and merciful. They punish, they absolve. They give, they take away.
Last Saturday, Ward Burton had a mortal lock on the Busch Series Grand National race when suddenly his car spun into the wall with seven laps left. His kid brother, Jeff, who was running second, had to check up to keep from wrecking, allowing Matt Kenseth to slip beneath him and into the lead. He held on for the win.
The next day, in the Napa Auto Parts 500, Kenseth, a 27-year-old Winston Cup rookie, went in front with 46 laps to go and began adding nearly .10 of a second to his lead every time around the two-mile tri-oval. In clean air and on long rims, Kenseth's Ford was untouchable, but on short runs and in traffic it was handling tight. So what happened? With 32 laps remaining, Jimmy Spencer spun and hit the wall, bringing out a caution flag. "It just broke," said Spencer of his deus ex machine.
In a perfect world the elder Burton would have benefited from the wreck and won the race, but the face that fortune smiled upon on the restart was that of Jeremy Mayfield, who had been attracting attention for dubious reasons all week. After Mayfield's 14th-place finish at Talladega on April 16, NASCAR launched an investigation of his fuel. The hot rumor as of Monday was that an additive had been found in his tank and that a fine or suspension was imminent. "These two weeks have been pretty weird for us," said Mayfield after the race.
He drove not only with possible sanctions looming, but also with his Ford's oil temperature, which is usually about 220�, soaring to around 340�. Mayfield took the lead during the pit stop that followed Spencer's crash. Most of the drivers near the front took on four tires, but Mayfield went with two and beat the others back to the track.
The tires, however, weren't the most important tiling Mayfield got during the pit stop. His back was being baked by his overheated oil tank, which is located directly behind the driver's seat. Mayfield told his crew to give him a couple of bags of ice cubes, which he dropped between his back and the seat, and hand him a cold drink. That was all he needed to hold off Bobby Labonte and Kenseth—who finished second and third, respectively—for his second career win.
In Victory Lane Mayfield's glee was tempered a bit from having been in the hot seat—literally—for 3� hours. "I think I burned my back," he said. "I'm blistered up, I'm sure."
There's a word for that, Jerry: penance.
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