FONTANA, Calif. -- Perhaps more than any other driver, Jeremy Mayfield needed a reason to celebrate Sunday. And the $125,925 he earned at the California Speedway will come in handy, too.
The race team that faces what is expected to be the biggest fine in stock car history prepared for NASCAR's heavy hand with a victory at the NAPA Auto Parts 300 -- much like a condemned prisoner's final meal.
On Tuesday, NASCAR is likely to hit Penske-Kranefuss Racing with a $100,000 fine, possible suspensions and the loss of car-owner points for slipping an illegal additive into the gas tank at Talladega, Ala., on April 16.
Knowing the team is about to be hit with the most costly penalty in NASCAR history, Mayfield turned Sunday's race into personal redemption. He had a problem with an oil line early in the race that cost him a lap, then he struggled with oppressive heat inside the car. And if that wasn't enough, his engine shut off with four laps to go as Bobby Labonte was mounting a final charge for the lead.
"We're not going down easy," Mayfield said. "No matter how far we get down, we never give up."
Mayfield, who dropped back to 42nd in the 43-car race, managed to get back his lost lap. He battled the heat with bags of ice. And when the engine shut off, he slapped the ignition box and switched to a back-up system. The car instantly came to life again, and he pulled away for a 20-yard victory over Labonte.
"He kind of stopped," Labonte said of Mayfield's sudden loss of power on a restart with four laps to go. "It scared me. I didn't want to run in the back of him and start a big wreck. I was going to go high on him because I figured that was my best chance. But when I had to hit the brakes, I kind of lost my momentum. It made the car bog down."
Mayfield said he's so used to having problems steal victories, he didn't panic when the car stopped running.
"I'm used to it," he said. "I had my hand up trying to motion him off. All of a sudden, it started running again. You ought to try going into turn one not knowing if you've got a flat right-front tire, your engine shuts off, you're waving people away from you and you're trying hit a bunch of switches. It was a strange day."
Although his team made quick repairs on the oil line by steering it away from the oil cooler, it meant the oil inside his engine went well beyond listed tolerances. The 15-quart oil tank is positioned less than five inches behind the driver's seat, and the uncooled oil took a tool on the driver.
"My feet are all burned," he said. "It was tough in there. The oil temperature was pegged at 340 degrees. But like I said, this team never gives up."
Mayfield was treated at the track's hospital after the race. He needed oxygen and fluids to overcome the fatigue caused by the heat inside his car.
Matt Kenseth, who wound up third, led for 119 laps and appeared to be on cruise control to his first Winston Cup victory when a late caution and pit strategy backfired. He led by almost five seconds when Jimmy Spencer smacked the wall with 31 laps to go.
Kenseth's team opted to take four new tires during its pit stop, while others, including Mayfield, decided track position was more valuable. Mayfield wasn't in the top 10 when the caution came out, and he bolted all the way to second place by taking on only two tires.
He took the lead on the restart and never trailed again during the final 26 laps.
"Unless I did something incredibly stupid or something in the car broke, I was going to win the race," Kenseth said. "But that's not the way it turned out, so we need to learn from it and get a little stronger as a team."
Mayfield's team has met with NASCAR officials several times in the past two weeks to discuss the infraction at Talladega. A final decision has been delayed for a variety of reasons, but Mayfield said it will all be settled Tuesday.
"When we won Pocono (in 1998), that was our first win," Mayfield said. "This feels like another first win for us. We've been showing we've got potential, but little things keep biting us.
"The win today doesn't make me think about the last two weeks. We're looking for the future."
Mayfield averaged 149.377 mph.
"No matter how far we're down, we kept digging and working," the winner said. "Our motto has been `Total Focus.' We've got the trophy, so it won't put a cloud over our eyes."
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