CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The split between Jeremy Mayfield and car owner Ray Evernham was both ugly and overdue.
Their four-year relationship ended last week in an Iredell County courtroom, with Mayfield fighting over the final details of his severance after Evernham kicked him out of the No. 19 Dodge.
That it took a detour through the judicial system wasn’t a surprise. The shocker was that it took this long.
Despite a pair of wins and two berths in the Chase for the championship, Mayfield has been miserable all season. He was mad that Evernham’s expansion from two cars to three required moving key personnel from Mayfield’s team into new roles and he went public with his displeasure a mere two months into the season.
That infuriated Evernham, who claimed Mayfield didn’t bring his concerns to the boss first but promised he’d try to make things better.
When it didn’t happen, the frustration simmered into the dog days of summer. Mayfield was mired in the very back of the Nextel Cup standings, while babyfaced teammate Kasey Kahne had four wins and a solid hold as Evernham’s top driver.
And as Evernham devoted more and more time to protege Erin Crocker, Mayfield finally exploded last month in Chicago with a critical rant that took several jabs at his absentee boss.
“I haven’t talked to Ray much,” Mayfield said, taking pains to point out Evernham’s absence at the track that day.
“We don’t see Ray much. He encourages us when he is around, but we haven’t seen him much lately. He used to be on top of stuff like this pretty hot and heavy, and he’s letting it take its course, I guess.”
Evernham had been with Crocker at an ARCA race that day, but rushed back to Chicago to deal with his disgruntled driver. Sitting side-by-side during a hastily called news conference, Mayfield backed off his remarks.
But that awkward 15 minutes together hardly cleared the air. Evernham was seething inside, furious that Mayfield had taken a cheap shot at him through the media. It was clear that day that it was over between the two, and whether they could make it to the end of the season was the only lingering question.
Mayfield was muzzled from that moment on, shadowed by a team representative who took pains to prevent Mayfield from discussing anything other than on-track activity. But Mayfield was no fool, and played every angle he could.
He said all the right things in public, but privately promoted a “Where’s Ray?” T-shirt that had been popping up around the garage. And he snuck in little remarks, such as his “I doubt I’m staying” declaration after his qualifying lap in Indianapolis two weeks ago.
Those four little words were just enough for Mayfield, who knew his on-guard team representative wouldn’t permit him to say anything more.
Mayfield wanted out — despite a contract that ran through 2007 and had two option years beyond that — and he was going to do everything in his power to make it happen.
He got his wish last week when Evernham yanked him out of the car in favor of Bill Elliott. The move was convenient because Mayfield had dropped to 36th in the points, the first position not promised a spot in the starting field, and putting Elliott in the car for the road course race at Watkins Glen gave him a better shot at making the race.
It also bought Evernham some time to figure out how to sever ties with Mayfield, whose level of displeasure had snowballed from a minor headache into a major migraine. The two sides finally reached an agreement Friday, freeing both of them once and for all from their miserable coexistence.
But once the dust settles, it will become clear that Mayfield walked away from the best team that will have him and Evernham is the clear winner in this fight.
Mayfield should have considered himself lucky to have been with Evernham, who hired him even though Mayfield had just flamed out with powerful car owner Roger Penske. And although Mayfield made the Chase with Evernham, he was never a contender for the title.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
He finished last in the field in 2004, and avoided a repeat last season only because Kurt Busch didn’t compete in the final two events of the year — allowing Mayfield to move up to ninth in the final standings.
A 37-year-old Southern boy from Kentucky, Mayfield doesn’t meet any of the “Young Gun” criteria car owners want these days. He may get a chance to finish the season with Robert Yates Racing, but that team will head into 2007 in a total rebuilding mode. Michael Waltrip no longer wants him for his startup organization, leaving a seat with also-ran Bill Davis Racing as his likely best offer.
Evernham, meanwhile, still has a career to build with Kahne and a dependable third driver in Scott Riggs. He’s still focusing a ton of time on Crocker — and in Mayfield’s defense, it probably is too much time — but he’s hoping to break barriers by putting her in a Cup car in the next few years.
And he’ll probably replace Mayfield with Elliott Sadler, who overrides his lack of on-track success with a tremendous off-track personality.
So Evernham will go on to win races, make millions of dollars and continue to be a central figure in NASCAR.
Mayfield, however, likely will wind up where he already is: Stuck in the back of the field.
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