For in this case, there are no winners.
With U.S. District Court judge Graham Mullen ordering NASCAR to lift Mayfield's suspension for drug use, the sport itself now has a black eye, the biggest loser in a two-month struggle to prove one of its veteran drivers tested positive for methamphetamines. In a decision that effectively punched the sanctioning body square in the face, Mullen concluded that the likelihood for a false positive "was quite substantial" due to the way the specimens -- particularly Mayfield's "B" sample -- were handled by NASCAR's independent laboratory tester, Aegis Laboratories in Tennessee. Those three words prove so powerful, they take the sport's drug policy and effectively throw it on the cutting room floor.
For a drug policy to be effective, it must be nearly perfect. After Wednesday's ruling, NASCAR's policy is on life-support. It's a blow some never expected, as for years, the sanctioning body has taken more of a dictatorial stance on its major issues, giving the impression that they're above reproach -- so much so that they refused to publish an official list of banned substances for drivers even after the vast majority expressed concern no list exists.
Now, that list is the least of the sport's problems. Just think of what happens if NASCAR fails to address the gaping holes in policy or testing procedure. Any driver or crewman who's been accused of testing positive can follow Mayfield's trail and sue, using his case as a precedent that all but wipes out any shred of the sport's authority. They'll use the same arguments ... and they'll win.
That's a tough pill for any totalitarian regime to swallow, especially since it's already been rocked by declining TV ratings and attendance, a racial discrimination lawsuit, and a sponsorship crisis in just the past 12 months. Now, the federal government is officially on its case; and, as we've seen with baseball, that's not the type of police force you can run away from.
But NASCAR's not the only one reeling this Thursday morning. What about drivers like Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, men who submitted affidavits stating they'd be afraid to race with anyone who'd tested positive for a recreational or performance-enhancing drug? In its argument to the court, NASCAR said the following:
"If other drivers refuse to race, it will harm the relationships that NASCAR has developed with its drivers, fans, sponsors and broadcasters over the last sixty years."
Well, starting next Sunday at Chicagoland, those drivers will be racing with someone whose "possible" positive result remains. Will they stand up and protest Mayfield's return to the series, as the sport alleges? Or will they respect the court's decision, welcome back their fellow driver into the fold, and begin to move on? While unlikely, should Mayfield's racing cause even one driver to sit out next week, those shockwaves would reverberate throughout the sport. NASCAR can still claim one thing the stick-and-ball ones can't: no strikes and no athlete unions. But will this decision be the final push drivers need to form one?
Come next week, we'll begin to have an answer to those questions. But there's also a nightmarish scenario now burning in every driver's head until the sport's drug policy gets a serious revision: perhaps, one day they, too, could be Jeremy Mayfield. With no list of banned substances and no foolproof testing procedure, permanent damage to both their career and reputation is, to be blunt, one urine sample away.
Which brings us to the matter of Mayfield himself. "The truth came out," he said after leaving the courtroom, a nice pairing with attorney Bill Diehl's proclamation that Wednesday was his client's "independence day." But when the temporary high wears off, the cold reality is that Mayfield will never be able to divorce himself from the fact he had one "A" sample, at one time, test positive for a serious recreational drug. Like baseball players forever associated with steroids, a shadow will linger over Mayfield. And in this economy, in this environment, that's likely enough to scare financial supporters away from his program. Rumors abounded that his self-owned No. 41 team was broke long before drugs ever entered the picture, and these types of cases aren't the ones you need in order to rebound from bankruptcy.
It's difficult to predict what happens from here. NASCAR isn't sure they'll appeal, Mayfield's future is far from secure, and the garage simply has no idea what to think. Perhaps all of us should take a line from REM, after all.
"Sometimes, everything is wrong."
• Many fans are upset at pit strategy causing another win in the Cup Series. But let's not forget Joey Logano wouldn't even have been in position to win without the sport's new wave-around rule. When all the lead-lap cars pitted during a caution on Lap 153, Logano joined a total of nine other drivers who wound up getting their lap back by staying out. Under the old system, these guys would stay behind the pace car and start on the tail end of the lead lap; now, they can all get the equivalent of NASCAR's "free pass" and get waved around to start at the back of the pack. It's the equivalent of a one-lap bonus when luck works out in their favor, as it did in New Hampshire on Sunday.
Logano, crew chief Greg Zipadelli and company have quickly become masters of this system, using it not once but twice (Pocono) to score solid finishes. But is letting so many cars back on the lead lap so quickly a little unfair to the rest of the competition? The double-file restart rule is great, but NASCAR might want to take a look at tweaking that part of the system. Even during a race as short as 300 miles, it erases any sort of advantage for the leaders to pull away and put cars a lap down. Limiting who gets their lap back to the free-pass car (and the free-pass car only) may be the right answer here; at the very least, it'll encourage more aggressive, side-by-side racing at the back of the pack.
• It was a little surprising -- and a little sad -- to see a Daytona entry list without the Wood Brothers. It's the first time in the modern era the No. 21 Ford won't even attempt to make the field for the 400-mile race. The team's been very successful on a limited schedule this year, rebuilding their program with 1988 Cup champ Bill Elliott. But considering the run they had in February -- where Elliott was 5th-fastest in time trials -- you'd think some sponsor would have stepped up and given them a chance to make the trip.
• For anyone wondering if Danica Patrick can be an instant success, just take a look at the rookie season put together by Scott Speed. In a little over two days, Speed wrecked Sprint Cup teammate Brian Vickers in the Nationwide Series race on Saturday, then followed it up with a crash of his own during the Cup show that left his Red Bull Toyota sitting in the garage. So far this season, Speed is 35th in Cup points, has failed to qualify his No. 82 car three times and has just one top-5 finish. And this is coming from a guy who, in just a few NASCAR starts last season, won a Truck Series race and contended for several victories in lower series.
It just goes to show you no matter how well you do in "AA" or "AAA," the trip to stock car's major leagues is a whole lot harder than it looks. Danica's road to NASCAR stardom would likely be just as difficult.