By Jerry Bonkowski
I've weighed all sides, and still have a very hard time believing it's true that Jeremy Mayfield was caught with some type of illegal substance in his system.
But that's what NASCAR officials told us Saturday in a hastily-called press conference, announcing Mayfield, along with one crew member from another Sprint Cup team and also a crew member from a Nationwide Series team, have been indefinitely suspended from Sprint Cup competition after testing positive for having a banned substance in their respective systems.
I've known and covered Mayfield for years and like many of you, he'd be one of the last guys I would pick to be a drug user of any type, let alone an abuser.
I mean, on the surface, it doesn't make sense. Particularly with NASCAR's newly-implemented full random testing and zero tolerance policy that went into effect this season, how could Mayfield risk his status as both a driver and team owner simply for the sake of getting high?
No one is THAT stupid, especially Mayfield.
Even though it's small-budget, Mayfield still has a ton of his own money tied up in his race team. He also has a squeaky-clean reputation as a competitor. Granted, he had run-ins at Penske Racing and Evernham Motorsports that ultimately led to his being fired in both instances, but that doesn't mean Mayfield is a user of anything banned or illegal.
Let's think realistically for a second: if you were in his shoes, would you risk a reported $500,000-plus of your own money, risk the future of your new livelihood, not to mention sully the name and reputation of your sponsors, to get high?
Sorry, but Mayfield is no Shane Hmiel, Aaron Fike or the late Kevin Grubb (committed suicide this past Wednesday after never being able to earn reinstatement from NASCAR), who still are (or in Grubb's case, was) on indefinite suspension for substance use and abuse.
When NASCAR announced last September at Dover that it was going to implement a new, wide-ranging drug testing program, I applauded the sanctioning body. But like other reporters who questioned NASCAR officials, I had a problem that there was no list of banned substances that was forthcoming.
Essentially, NASCAR told us that "we'll know it's illegal when we see it."
Now, based upon various news reports, Mayfield claims that the two positive results from the same test he took last week at Richmond were due to an over-the-counter medication that he took.
I'm not going to name the medication, although it's widely known and widely taken by likely millions of consumers around the world – and taken legally and within prescribed or directed parameters.
But if that unnamed medication is indeed what tripped up Mayfield's test, doesn't NASCAR look like a hypocrite because the company that produces that product just happens to be a major NASCAR sponsor?
Explain that one to me.
Let me see if I have this right: it's okay for NASCAR and a major multi-car team owner to take big bucks from such a sponsor, run its commercials all over TV (and with a star driver endorsing the product as a regular user, I might add), but the product is reportedly among those that NASCAR considers to include a banned substance?
That's nothing short of ludicrous. And what may wind up happening? In its quest to get the drug testing policy right, and if Mayfield challenges and successfully wins an appeal and reversal of his suspension, NASCAR may ultimately wind up giving itself and the sport a huge black eye, not to mention looking like a horse's ass if Mayfield had already told league officials that he indeed was taking a LEGAL over-the-counter medicine.
Even if the "substance" contained in the medication was on NASCAR's banned list, that doesn't mean how Mayfield took it was illegal in any way, shape or form. Have we forgotten the quick rush to judgment last year when Camping World Truck Series driver Ron Hornaday Jr., was initially vilified for using a steroidal cream, even though it was legally prescribed by a doctor and taken as instructed by Hornaday.
Remember how quickly that fiasco faded when it was proven Hornaday did absolutely nothing wrong -- and then had to have his private life trudged through, and completely uncalled for? If that happened today, would we be talking about Hornaday being suspended like Mayfield, too?
How can NASCAR tell anyone what medication he or she can take if it's being taken within prescribed dosages and directions? In the rush to, in essence, fall in line with other pro sports leagues, did NASCAR rush to judgment or try to make an example of Mayfield?
Sure, in theory, the product may contain some components that might alter a driver's physical make-up, but at the same time, it also might not.
How many times have we purchased over-the-counter meds that typically come with a warning like, "Take as directed," "Results may vary," or "May cause drowsiness. Do not operate a vehicle or machinery while taking (the product)"?
It's up to us to make that determination that we're willing to risk -- or, at the very least -- understand the potential side effects, even though some of us won't fall prey to any of those so-called side effects.
I also find it odd that NASCAR had to announce Mayfield's suspension roughly an hour before Saturday's Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway, rather than wait until, say, Monday or Tuesday of this week. Given the fact Mayfield failed to qualify for the race and was not a competitor, why then all the hurry to out him?
An even better question is this: if NASCAR informed Mayfield earlier in the week that it was moving to suspend him for the alleged infractions, as various reports have claimed, why did it let him practice and attempt to qualify on Friday?
Mayfield will announce a temporary team owner and replacement driver to fill his two roles early this week. He hopes that the No. 41 team can continue forward while he fights NASCAR through legal means.
As I said earlier, I applauded NASCAR for implementing a tough new drug policy and testing system at the end of last year. But at the same time, I readily predicted that something like what has happened to Mayfield was going to occur sooner, rather than later due to the inflexibility of the new system.
There was too much gray area in how NASCAR was going to pick and choose what substances were considered illegal, not to mention it's zero tolerance aspect, that the sanctioning body went from an old system of rare enforcement to a 180-degree difference far too quickly, in my mind. The system needed slow tweaks and revisions to make it work optimally and provide drivers with the best format possible.
NASCAR also failed to publicly identify the alleged substance Mayfield is accused of using, yet another misstep. If the sanctioning body wants drivers, team owners, fans, reporters and anyone associated with the sport to have total faith in its decisions, then tell us so we can better understand and rationalize why NASCAR took the action it did.
Instead of just implying, "Well, it's what we thought was the right thing to do, but we're not going to tell you why."
One can make an argument that NASCAR was protecting Mayfield's privacy. But if he has nothing to hide – and I still say he truly has nothing to hide – I'm willing to bet that he would gladly allow NASCAR to identify the alleged substance so that he could fight the charges on a level playing field, not to mention show the inferiorities contained within the new system.
I predict Mayfield is going to successfully challenge NASCAR and will be back in a race car and running his own race team in a short while, maybe a month, tops.
If he has a good legal team, it may be even sooner.
But even if he's vindicated, Mayfield is always going to carry around the stigma in the court of public opinion that he was the first Cup driver caught and suspended, so plenty of folks are still going to say he had to have something to hide – even though he seems more than willing to show us just the opposite.
As much as I hate to say it, in a twisted way, NASCAR's old do-nothing (or very little) system may have been better with its simplistic approach, than the new one does with all the bells, whistles and so-called "improvements" it now has.