Good Intentions Gone Wrong: The Wallace and Mayfield Years at Penske of 1998-'00
As early as late 1997, Rusty Wallace's No. 2 team, under the Penske South Racing banner, was looking for a new teammate for the '98 season.
Mentioning it during a column in Stock Car Racing magazine, Wallace said how he was hoping for his new teammate to have a chemistry similar to Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham.
After all, during those times, the one team that several competitors were chasing was the No. 24 DuPont Chevy from the Hendrick Motorsports shop. Gordon and Evernham were chalking up wins and somehow defeating the powerful Ford teams from the Yates, Roush, and Penske stables.
Logically, Penske Racing South looked to expansion as a means to not only compete at a high level, but to also improve the No. 2 team's performances.
With a new car in the Ford Taurus and the "5 and 5" rule implemented at the handling racetracks, Wallace was going to need a bit of help on the track.
Solidering on as a single car operation for seven seasons, car owner Roger Penske partnered with fellow Ford colleague Michael Kranefuss, rebranding the former No. 37 team to the No. 12 Mobil 1 Ford Taurus crew.
Driver Jeremy Mayfield and crew chief Paul Andrews suddenly found themselves working under the Penske name, working alongside Rusty Wallace and head wrench Robin Pemberton.
Their partnership was designed for the long-run, with Wallace finally having an ally in the form of Mayfield, not only in the garage area but on the track, where he could share set-up notes as well as mentor the youngster at various circuits.
Initially, everything ran smoothly with the cagey St. Louis, MO veteran and the fresh-faced Ownesboro, KY native, as they consistently ran towards the front of the field for a majority of the 1998 season.
Not only did they excel at most of the Sprint Cup venues, their cars were similarly painted with a white front end and a blue trim from roof to rear quarterpanels. Wallace's No. 2 Miller Lite Ford Taurus looked just as sleek as Mayfield's No. 12 Mobil 1 machine, as both drivers had their share of the points lead for most of the spring segment.
The results were there immediately for Penske's new two car team, as Wallace overcame a horrible '97 campaign with a strong 1998 season, nabbing a victory at Phoenix along with 15 top-fives and 21 top-10 finishes, good enough to place fourth in the final points tally.
As for Mayfield, he finally got his breakthrough victory, which came at Pocono Raceway in June. Despite a rough summer stretch, the colorful Kentucky driver performed solidly enough to finish a career-best seventh-place in the standings.
Expectations soared for the Penske operation in 1999, with Mayfield and Wallace expected to win multiple times and duplicate their performances from the previous season. And why not? Their cars were fast, they meshed well together, and there was absolutely no reason in the world for both drivers' relationship to sour, right?
Almost in the same style as the detroriating relationship between Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell, the aggressive Wallace would find himself drfiting away from the equally wily Mayfield.
Ironically, the Nos. 2 and 12 teams began to go in different directions in terms of chassis and set-ups, almost acting as separate entities rather than the powerful tag-team they were in '98.
While Wallace extended his long winning streak with a sole victory at the spring Bristol race in 1999, his overall performance fell, as his No. 2 entry dropped to eighth in the points standings.
Mayfield wasn't quite as fortunate, as he went through the entire '99 season without a victory. Adding insult to injury, his crew chief Paul Andrews would find himself working with Steve Park and the No. 1 Pennzoil Chevy team, resulting in Peter Sozpenso taking over the reigns.
Unable to capture their magic from '98, Mayfield would place 11th in points, with more questions than answers looming for the 2000 season.
Despite all attempts to unite both teams back into the same chemistry and communication of 1998, Wallace and Mayfield, as well as their groups, just never got back on the same page. Although Wallace would continue to be a regular contender for a strong top-10 points finish, Mayfield just never clicked with the Penske team.
Sure, he'd grab a pair of wins in 2000, but he also finished a lowly 24th in the overall championship standings. A lack of good fortune and mechanical gremlins did Mayfield in that year, while an injury in 2001 eventually sealed his fate in his final year with the Penske organization.
Meanwhile, Wallace would race on for six more seasons, finding himself with new teammate Ryan Newman and his No. 12 Alltel crew. Sound all too familiar?
Changes soon swept in with the Penske group, with Wallace going through two crew chiefs in Billy Wilburn and Larry Carter as well as the team switching manufacturer from Ford to Dodge.
Similarly, Wallace and Newman had a solid start with their partnership but eventually failed to see eye-to-eye during the 2004 and '05 seasons.
That was quite apparent in the 2004 Martinsville fall race, where Newman popped Wallace betweens turn three and four, knocking him out of a solid finish and locking horns with his teammate.
Success stories seem to have those chapters where things go astray, but they usually tend to work themselves out ultimately.
Unfortunately for Penske and Wallace, good intentions of having a new teammate in their efforts of "Keeping with the Joneses" resulted in somewhat disillusioned times.