BROOKLYN, Mich. - It almost didn't matter who won yesterday's GFS Marketplace 400. Just so the great Tony Stewart didn't.
Kurt Busch had his chances, particularly late in the race. But mostly it came down to Stewart, NASCAR's resident superstar, who never led but every week presents a visible and viable threat to build on his No. 1 ranking.
So we'll always remember Jeremy Mayfield and the NASCAR victory he stole at Michigan International Speedway. Mayfield shot past Nextel Cup Series leader Stewart and Co. to win his first race of 2005.
Mayfield couldn't have put on a better show - and Stewart couldn't have finished more poorly, free-falling from second to fifth after being forced to make a pit stop with 10 laps to go.
"Let's just put it this way: I don't give a [blank]," said a testy Stewart, responding to a reporter's question about his lowest finish since July 24.
"We show up for our sponsors and our teams and for the points and the glory and the girls and everything else involved," Stewart said. "It really doesn't matter whether you guys put me in the limelight this week."
One man's junk is another man's treasure. Mayfield made no apologies for stealing a victory.
"I can't believe we won," he said. And meant every word of it.
Watching his No. 19 Dodge zoom around the two-mile oval, Mayfield displayed the kind of driving panache normally reserved for Stewart, who entered yesterday's race with five wins in his last seven races.
Mayfield had the veteran touch needed to outlast a talented field. He, along with Ray Evernham, president and CEO of Evernham Motorsports, together with crew chief Slugger Labbe and team director Kenny Francis, possessed gunslinger guts and the confidence to stick with their risky strategy of milking the last drop of gas while other drivers were forced to make costly pit stops.
"It's the first time I won a race on fuel mileage," Evernham said. "It feels good to be on the other side."
Don't ask Stewart how losing feels. Better to ask during his recent hot streak that vaulted him to the top of this year's money list with $4.9 million in earnings.
NASCAR's top driver is always nicer after a win.
"You know, we had a good car," he said. "We had to work on it all day to make it fast. To start 36th and end up in the top five is a pretty good day, I'd say."
All things considered, yes. But not when Stewart, the driver with the Midas touch, seemingly had another win in his grasp - only to see it slip away because of a critical error in strategy.
"It is kind of frustrating to a certain degree, but at the same time we could have came in and got fuel like everybody else at the end of that deal," he said. "So you know, it worked for two guys [Mayfield and second-place finisher Scott Riggs, who also overtook Stewart late] and for us we lost three spots."
It was a great race with a surprising storyline. Things could not have gone more smoothly for Mayfield, or ended more sourly for Stewart.
Mayfield didn't have the fastest car in the race, but on this day he was the best driver during crunch time.
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