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Suspension is latest in Mayfield's deterioration -- is it the last straw?

Jeremy Mayfield is a prodigiously talented driver who has won five races since 1998 and who qualified for the Chase in 2004 and '05. He's also the chronic malcontent who's been run off of two teams in the last eight years and has just one top-20 finish in his last 39 starts.

The reason for the indefinite suspension that NASCAR handed him yesterday might be a shocker -- Mayfield is the first Cup driver to be disciplined under the sport's new substance-abuse policies -- but the fact that he's at the center of controversy is hardly surprising.

This incident is nothing more than the latest episode in the inexorable disintegration of what once seemed to be one of the more promising careers in Cup racing. And it might also be the final one.

Since Mayfield, 39, lost his ride at Bill Davis Racing in the fall of '07, he has been a Cup-irregular, making just 13 starts in the last two seasons. This year he's been running his own one-car team, earning money by turning laps at the back of the field. Without finishing better than 32nd in five races this season, his earnings total a not-too-shabby $568,888. Rarely has being bad paid so well.

But running in back isn't what Mayfield burns to do. "I don't want to be the guy just below Jeff Gordon," he told SI back in 1998. "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."

Mayfield was 28 when he said that, just four years removed from his Cup debut. But he was already two years older than Gordon, NASCAR's prototypical young gun. Gordon made his first Cup start at the age of 20, laying down a path that has been followed by other driving wunderkind, including Kyle Busch (who was 19 when he made his first start in 2004) and Joey Logano (who was 18 when he made his debut last year). When Mayfield, a native of Owensboro, Ky., was that age, he was sweeping out garages and working as a "panel-beater" at Sadler Racing. As he sees it, he's paid his dues. And then some.

Mayfield never forgot his blue-collar roots. But in addition to driving him to victory on the track, those roots also left him with a huge chip on his shoulder. He won three races for owner Roger Penske from 1998-2001, but his conviction that Penske wasn't treating him as well as teammate Rusty Wallace led to an open spat between the two drivers. It didn't help matters that Penske was also in the process of grooming 23-year-old Ryan Newman for an eventual Cup ride. Mayfield gave voice to his displeasure and was let go 28 races into the 2001 season.

That dispute was nothing compared to the mess Mayfield left behind at Evernham Motorsports, which had signed him after he left Penske. Mayfield won two races for owner Ray Evernham and twice made the Chase, but things fell apart in 2006. Mired in a slump that summer -- while baby-faced teammate Kasey Kahne was en route to a series-best six victories -- Mayfield took shots at Evernham for missing race weekends. Evernham eventually fired him, and Mayfield responded with a lawsuit that accused his boss of spending too much time with his protégé, female Truck-Series driver Erin Crocker (the two settled out of court).

The tragedy of Mayfield's situation is that he's never been young enough -- or good enough (though almost everybody in NASCAR agrees that he is very good) -- for anybody to keep around once his abrasive personality started rocking boats. And there doesn't really seem any particularly compelling reason for somebody to step in to save his career now. Mayfield has crossed over from being a headstrong young man to a chronically troubled veteran (one who might be a substance abuser) in the last 10 years. What owner is going to want to take a chance on that if and when he returns?

The long road back, it would seem, is at an end.