Take heart, all you Jeff Gordon boobirds. Your kind of hero is on the way. He's Jeremy Mayfield, who in five years has worked his way from the shop floor to a surprising second place in the Winston Cup point standings at week's end.
Mayfield's blue-collar background makes him, in the minds of many NASCAR fans, the perfect antidote to Gordon, the circuit's top driver in two of the past three years. The quick success enjoyed by the 26-year-old Gordon is perceived by these fans to be a result more of his association with the deep-pocketed Hendrick Motorsports team than of his driving skill. Though Mayfield, 28, is winless this season—bad luck cost him checkered flags in the TranSouth 400 at Darlington and the Texas 500 at Fort Worth—he has four top 10 finishes and more points than every other Winston Cup driver except Penske-Kranefuss teammate Rusty Wallace.
At Darlington, Mayfield was leading with 43 laps to go when a caution flag enabled the other contenders to drop off at their frontstraight pits half a lap earlier than Mayfield, whose pit was on the backstretch; he finished fourth. At Texas, Mayfield and his Ford Taurus were clearly the class of the field, starting on the pole and leading 105 of the 334 laps—more than twice as many as anyone else. But he was knocked out of contention midway through the race by a flat and finished 23rd.
Mayfield had already turned heads with his third-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. Two weeks later, in the Las Vegas 400, he made 52 passes for position—he started 32nd, moved up to fifth, dropped to 30th after a bad pit stop and battled back to end up fifth.
Mayfield figures all these near misses have been better for him than instant success. "If we'd won Daytona, it might have overwhelmed us," he says. "Now if we win, it's kind of like we're supposed to win."
Mayfield grew up in Owensboro, Ky., the hometown of his boyhood idol, Darrell Waltrip. After racing go-karts, late model stocks and in the A RCA series, he got a start in the Winston Cup in 1993 when he went to work as a fabricator and occasional driver for Sadler Racing. When Mayfield joined Cale Yarborough Racing a year later, he continued working as a fabricator even while driving full time. "When I wrecked a car, I was the one who had to fix it," he says of his main incentive to not drive recklessly. "I don't think I've lost that mentality, and that's probably why we're second in points right now."
Mayfield is candid about his ambitions. "I don't want to be the guy just below Jeff Gordon," he says. "I want to be equal to or above him. You can't say those things until it happens, but you do feel them a lot. Right now, Gordon's at the top—and I want to be there."