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Momentum on Mayfield's side

Jeremy Mayfield finally knows what the spotlight feels like.

Twelve years into a career that has meandered through high-profile teams but on the outskirts of success, the Owensboro, Ky., native will experience what the big time really means as one of 10 drivers vying for the Nextel Cup title. He starts from the ninth position today at New Hampshire International Speedway.

Mayfield got a sampling last weekend, needing and getting a win in the final "regular-season" race at Richmond to move into the ninth spot in the standings.

Maintaining the all-in attitude that led to that victory, Mayfield now considers himself a legitimate title contender. What once would have been a laughable declaration now must be taken seriously.

"We've got not only momentum, but the 19 team just won their first race," Mayfield said. "A lot of guys on that team had never been to Victory Lane. Now all those guys know what it's all about. They know what it feels like, and they know they can do it.

"I believe we've definitely got an advantage over the field because we're just now beginning and (the rest of the Chase drivers) they've won, they're already in their own rut and we're into the part we've never been before."

That's pretty much how Mayfield's career has gone. The 35-year-old veteran, who financed his Late Models career as a teen by painting signs and numbers on cars, never received much attention when he was living in the shadow of teammate Rusty Wallace. Two of Mayfield's three career wins entering this season came in 2000. Admittedly somewhat brash at that time, Mayfield clashed with Wallace, but he learned some things, too.

Mayfield's new comfort was evident in a preseason media tour. In his third season with Evernham Motorsports, he was front and center in promotional photos, the new face of the team with former champion Bill Elliott easing into retirement with a part-time schedule and rookie Kasey Kahne expected to endure all the travails that come with a first Cup season.

"I'm more humble now," Mayfield said before the season. "I'm confident, but I'm humble as far as that goes. I'm not going to say I'm the lead dog. Rusty is a good guy and he helped me a lot, but he had to be the lead dog. It was his deal and I understand, but now I'm in a situation where there is no big dog."

For a while at least. Although the unassuming Kahne did not seek lead-dog status within the organization, three top-three finishes in his first four races made him the new face of Evernham. Mayfield, meanwhile, struggled, finishing 34th at Texas and 36th at Martinsville in consecutive weeks. The veteran faded as Kahne mounted not only a runaway campaign for rookie of the year but also a bid for the Chase for the Championship.

Somewhere it all changed for Mayfield. An inconsistent pit crew put together better stops, performance increased and Mayfield finished fifth at Chicago and had four top 10s in five races to move into contention in late summer.

Mayfield held the 10th spot after finishing seventh at Watkins Glen, but finishes of 11th, 22nd and 16th relegated him to 14th, 55 points from the last spot entering Richmond.

He needed a masterstroke.

"It was right before he got in the car," Evernham said, "and I looked him in the eye and I meant it. I said, "Look, I want you to understand something. Win, lose or draw tonight you've done a hell of a job getting us here. We're here because of you. If we make it, we make it. If we don't, we don't, but we've done our best and we're going to go on.' For some reason it kind of stuck in his mind. I believed it. He's worked hard to get us here, and he's just a great guy."

Mayfield cycled to the front in a late caution period, took the lead when Kurt Busch pitted for fuel with eight laps left and led 151 of 400 laps. Mayfield made the Chase, Kahne did not.

Like a last-second shot or winning home run on a national stage, the victory, Evernham contends, elevated Mayfield toward the status he imagined when he signed him for the 2002 season.

"I think that put Jeremy in a whole different class," Evernham said of Mayfield, whose best points finish was seventh in 1998. "People have got to look at Jeremy in a whole different light right now. He's got to look at himself in a different light. He stepped up at the big game, the final shot right on the buzzer, and he and his team performed flawlessly.

"I think that they're a different race team today because of that. There's a different look on their faces. There's a different attitude in that shop. They've accomplished something to them that was great. It was a great step for them, their first great step together, and they're a different race team today."

Now they're legitimate championship contenders. But they have to prove it 10 more times.