Mayfield saves chase spot

Jeremy Mayfield won the Richmond NASCAR Nextel Cup race last night to take game and set Saturday night in the 'race for the chase'. Now, he and nine other drivers will take aim on match - the 2004 Nextel Cup championship - over the final 10 races of the season

Mayfield saves chase spot

Evernham Motorsport's Mayfield, needing every point and every lap he could get, vaulted from 14th to ninth in the break-day standings - with only the top 10 eligible for the championship dash - leading 151 of the 400 laps and winning the Chevy 400 at Richmond International Raceway.

Under NASCAR's championship system, newly devised for this season, only drivers in the top 10 in points, or within 400 of the lead, are eligible for title contention, with the final 10 events constituting a sort of playoff. Mayfield had lurked all year around 11th, 12th, 13th, before falling to 14th with two middling efforts in a row.

Saturday night, Mayfield started seventh and quickly moved toward the front, taking the lead for the first time on lap 99, passing long-shot Mike Wallace, who had skipped the pit stops under caution on lap 52. Mayfield then was pressed by Kurt Busch, who seemed to have the faster car, especially on longer runs. Busch passed Mayfield for the lead on lap 115. Those two led all but 57 laps the rest of the way.

As the track, and a high groove, finally came in, the two drivers and Dale Earnhardt Jr traded the lead four times in just 21 laps, between 328 and 349, with Busch emerging with a narrow lead the next 44 laps.

Mayfield ran a steady second to Busch through that stretch until Busch, on a different pit interval with most of the field, ran out of gas on lap 392, with Mayfield sailing by to the lead. He beat Earnhardt to the line by 4.928s, with Jeff Gordon a distant third and Mike Bliss, in a surprisingly strong Joe Gibbs entry, fourth.

A turning point, at least in the championship contest, came on lap 180, when a multicar crash, triggered by a tough battle among the back-marker cars of Dale Jarrett and Jimmy Spencer, involved several of the contenders, including Mark Martin, Dale Earnhardt Jr, and most notably, incoming points leader Jimmie Johnson.

Johnson's car was badly damaged and was pulled to the garage for repairs, Johnson emerging 57 laps later, out of contention. Johnson was in no danger of dropping out of the championship race, but his elimination invoked the 400-point clause, briefly putting Kasey Kahne and Bobby Labonte into what would have been a 12-team race.

Meanwhile, Gordon, second in points, struggled with the handle of his car, falling into the teens, further helping the odds of those at the cut-off. Gordon, however, found what he was looking for toward the end and rallied for third.

Due to Johnson's misfortune, Gordon regained the points lead by 60 over Johnson and 61 over Earnhardt. None of that matters now, with the points to be artificially re-rigged headed to New Hampshire, with five-point increments between each position in the top 10, starting with 5050 for first place.

The eligible drivers now are Gordon, Johnson, Earnhardt, Tony Stewart, Matt Kenseth and Elliott Sadler, all of whom had clinched headed into this race; Busch, Martin and Ryan Newman, who were on the bubble spots; and Mayfield, who raced into the playoff, bumping Kahne, who had been in the top 10.

The losers Saturday night were Jamie McMurray, who finished 15 points out of 10th; Kahne, who ended up 28 behind; Bobby Labonte, 49 marks out; Kevin Harvick and Dale Jarrett, all of whom had had a mathematical shot at the Elite Ten entering the Richmond race.

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