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Blue-Collar Driver Former panel-beater Jeremy Mayfield is an alternative NASCAR hero


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 ARCA 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."

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND [Jeremy Mayfield]