RICHMOND, VA — Jeremy Mayfield took a turn atop the Winston Cup standings after a second-place showing in the California 500, and he's been in the middle of the chase pretty much all year.
Not bad for a 28-year-old driver who's still seeking his first career Winston Cup victory, or whose 13th-place finish in last year's points race was twice as good as he'd done in three previous seasons as a driver.
Now, with other drivers recognizing that Mayfield is more savvy than the average young gun who just likes to drive fast, the Owensboro, Ky., native is eying his Victory Lane debut.
And, he'll tell you he's even been practicing.
``We won that No Bull 25 and that was a good feeling,'' he said.
``Sure, some people might say, `Well, it was a qualifying race,' but they gave us a trophy and we got to go to Victory Lane and we had our pictures taken, the whole bit. We won the Winston Open and that was an even better feeling. Say what you want, but we got another trophy and another trip to Victory Lane.
``Now we're ready for another trip to Victory Lane, and we want to do that for a Winston Cup race. We have plenty of room for trophies.''
Just over a third of the way through the 32-race schedule, Mayfield knows he's in the thick of the race for the championship, and that means driving smart and not going all out to win and risking a costly mistake.
``We're running for points right now, but we're not thinking about points,'' he said. ``What I mean is we're not wondering how things are going with everyone else except how it works in relation to the race itself.''
It's the kind of bigger picture attitude many drivers take years to learn, and one some never do. But Mayfield picked up on it in a hurry.
``There's nothing we can do _ well, nothing we can do legally _ to affect where anybody else finishes,'' he said. ``So we have to put all our efforts into where we finish and not worry about anybody else.''
Mayfield trails Jeff Gordon by 47 points for the series lead, with teammate Rusty Wallace third, another 45 points behind. And this weekend, Mayfield may not be able to avoid knowing how those two are doing.
Wallace comes in as the defending champion and has always done well on Richmond's 3/4-mile, D-shaped oval. Over the past 18 races, he's won here six times, finished in the top five 14 times and in the top 10 17 times.
``When people ask me about my favorite track, somehow I always get back to mentioning Richmond,'' he said. ``We've just seemed to have good handle on the place since they rebuilt it as a 3/4-mile track (in 1988).''
Gordon has only one career Richmond victory, but he's been even better than Wallace on short tracks of late. He's led 22 of the last 24 short track races, finished in the top five 18 times and the top 10 22 times. Over the last 16 races, he has 14 finishes of fourth or better, seven victories.
And, like Mayfield and Wallace, Gordon knows that even though the season is still relatively young, consistency always pays.
``We can lose the points lead a lot quicker than we got it,'' he said.
(Copyright 1998 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.) APTV-06-05-98 0144EDT