Mayfield put in the work to get shot at the Chase

To casual observers of the Nextel Cup Series, Jeremy Mayfield may appear to be something of a newcomer. After all, despite years on the circuit coming up the old-fashioned way, Mayfield's never had a high profile.

Unlike those who seemingly get a Cup ride along with their high-school diploma, Mayfield spent his early years in the sport building stock cars on weekdays before climbing behind the wheel during the weekend.

His break came while driving for three-time Winston Cup champion Cale Yarborough. Mayfield, though, wasn't handed anything -- other than the tools necessary to get his car ready for the next race.

"I was at the shop every morning at 8 o'clock and couldn't be late," Mayfield says. "I probably made less than just about every crew member there, but I wanted it. I didn't have anything else. I didn't have anything I could turn back on. I didn't have a rich family (supporting me so) that I could just come out here and race and have fun. I had to race to survive in life and that's what I've done."

Mayfield's not only survived, he's thrived. And he's on pace, with two races left, to qualify for the Chase for the Nextel Cup for the second straight year.

So fans accustomed to hearing nothing but All-Dale-Jr. all the time will have a chance to get better acquainted with Mayfield while he's competing for a championship over the final 10 weeks.

And those who worship Earnhardt Jr. might just find something they like about Mayfield. After all, they at least have a little something in common.

Like Mayfield, Earnhardt Jr. at least knows how to work on his car. Granted he didn't do it once he reached Cup, but Earnhardt Jr.'s father made him work on his Late Model stock cars when he was cutting his teeth. Mayfield, though, knows those times have changed.

"That's something you're not seeing a lot anymore for whatever reason, but there's still some out there," Mayfield says. "You look at Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr. too, he worked on his stuff. A lot of guys in the sport have done that, but you're not seeing many lately coming up that have done that.

"Maybe the sport is changing in that direction, and that's OK. Everybody can do their own thing and get there their own way. It's just cool how you're seeing a little bit of that transition going on. Used to you never would have seen that."

Driving for Evernham Motorsports, Mayfield no longer needs to work on his Dodges and he's fine with that. Driving for a well-funded multicar team is the way to go, but he's not ashamed of his workingman's past, either.

"That's something I'm so proud of, and that's why I don't let it bother me that I'm not selling the most souvenirs out there or whatever," Mayfield says. "I didn't have the name, and I clawed my way up and then stalled out for awhile. I moved from Penske [Racing South] to Evernham, but now I'm going back up again. That's something nobody can ever take away from me.

"I didn't have nothing coming up. I barely was able to run Street Stocks and then move into Late Models. I had to fight and go to junkyards and cut motors out of cars and build my own race cars and everything else. That's why I'm content with who I am and I've got peace with that.

"Whether I'm talked about or not talked about … that's the way I feel about it. There's nothing more satisfying than knowing I can build a car from the ground up. No matter what it is, paint it, letter it, wire it, whatever it takes and then get in it and drive it. That's something I've got within myself that I'm very proud of and a lot of people don't even know that about me. Maybe they just think I just got in a race car and started driving or whatever, but I've done a lot of stuff in my career that's self-satisfying."

And unless he encounters plenty of problems in the next two races, Mayfield will have the satisfaction of being in the Chase. He made it by winning the 26th and final race before the field was set last year, gaining a small measure of notoriety in the process.

But any hopes of a surprising championship run were dashed almost from the outset, when he was caught up in a wreck early on at New Hampshire. Strong runs alternated with races in which luck again turned against Mayfield's crew, leaving him 10th in points at season's end.

This year, Mayfield hopes things go differently, but he's not counting himself among those locked into the Chase just yet.

"We're in a lot better position with two races left to set the Chase field than we were a year ago. However, nothing has been settled yet," he says. "We're not going to California and drop our guard down and go there not to win the race.

"We've battled all year to get to this point. We're not going to leave anything on the table in California or Richmond. We're going to California open-minded, but knowing we need to get all the points we can. The first objective is to win the race."

Maybe another win will earn Mayfield some of the respect he thinks has eluded a driver who now has five Cup wins on his résumé. Through the years, Mayfield's heard the talk that he's not always focused enough to get the job done, talk he knows doesn't surround Jeff Gordon when he endures a tough stretch of races, as has been the case this year.

"The problem I've got with it is people want to throw off on just me or say I'm not focused or I don't drive like I used to drive. That's not right," Mayfield says. "That's what irritates me more than anything. We're gaining respect. I'm as much focused now as I've ever been, and I feel like I'm a better driver than I've ever been. Yet, nobody seems to realize that."

A strong run through the final 10 races could finally open some eyes, though, and that's Mayfield's goal. Well, he truly doesn't care how much attention he gets; his goal is to win the title and any additional respect along the way is simply a bonus.

"We've put a lot of effort into getting into the Chase. We've tested three or four times the last [seven] weeks, including the Goodyear tire test [at Kansas]. It's kinda got everybody, not really tired, but it's a wear on you. The grind we've been going through is extremely tough. I think the ones that can get through that and then can recoup and recover and go through the last 10 with the same amount of energy will be the ones who can win the championship."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.