“Congratulations on keeping a job!”
Just imagine your reaction, this Monday morning at work if someone walked up to you and said that. At best, you’d think relief, betting a series of layoffs pink-slipped half the office. At worst, there would be a tongue-lashing, clearly insulted as if showing up for work wasn’t good enough. “What do you mean, lucky to keep a job? Do you know how I’ve done A, B, and C? You’re lucky I don’t ask for a raise!”
The responses, mostly negative in nature are endless. But in sports, keeping a job, as a top-tier exceptional athlete is more impressive than it looks. To do so, over a decade with a constant rollover of talent should actually mean something. Just as much as Sunday’s victory, the seventh of his Sprint Cup career meant to an emotional Jamie McMurray.
“The best part about it for me and I told Christy, it would be so cool to be able to take our kids to Victory Lane,” he said through Talladega tears. “Pretty awesome.”
It was looking like that might never happen, a three-year winless streak causing head-scratching for many as to how McMurray still wound up employed. But the No. 1 car was first, for the first time in three years because no one stuck their nose out and made a run on the veteran in the final laps. That insistence on staying single-file is another column, for another day. There is irony, though in the midst of fan madness over what many felt was a “blah” ending that a driver many point to as mediocre triumphed again. This victory is the fourth on restrictor plate tracks for McMurray since 2007; no driver has more these last seven years. Not Johnson, not Kenseth. Not even Kevin Harvick or Tony Stewart. Perhaps EGR knows what they’re doing, then, keeping this driver on hand for 2014 and beyond?
There’s some sweet irony in that McMurray’s greatest strength comes at tracks with generic motors. He was initially the generic “young gun,” replacing Sterling Marlin with limited credentials yet winning his second time in a Cup Series car, back in 2002. That Charlotte victory propelled him into a full-time ride, with Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates during an era where men like Marlin fell victim to pretty faces. But this man, the most thankful I’ve ever seen to win a Daytona 500 (2010) in the years I’ve covered the sport is far from generic. He cares about his team, the opportunities given and paying back those who stuck with him.
Unfortunately, as Casey Mears, McMurray’s former teammate can attest to personal popularity inside the garage doesn’t earn you success on the racetrack. Sunday’s winner is one of just 11 drivers to race full-time, every season during the Chase era. He’s the only one of them to go 0-for-10 on making the postseason. (Bobby Labonte, for those wondering was the 12th, but he went part-time after getting replaced behind the wheel of the No. 47 Toyota this season). Missing the playoffs haunts McMurray, the Achilles’ Heel of his career. The first two Chases, back in 2004 and ’05 he was in contention at Richmond only to fall apart during the regular season finale. It’s been little more than a pipe dream since, even with a trio of 2010 wins that included both the Daytona and Brickyard 400s, respectively.
That giant hole in the resume adds on to the narrative McMurray can’t get the job done behind the wheel. That for the majority of his Sprint Cup career, he’s been filling up a spot on the grid until someone more talented comes along. But for those critics, one has to realize that attendance can mean something. McMurray’s outlasted “prized” young talents at Ganassi like Mears, Reed Sorenson, and now outgoing open-wheel expert Juan Pablo Montoya. You can’t do that for this long based on smiling for business executives at the right times. Truth is, on paper five of McMurray’s seven wins have also come within the last five seasons. It’s a total that’s just one less than four-time champion Jeff Gordon, along with last year’s championship runner-up Clint Bowyer. Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and Mark Martin also have five victories apiece during that span. And among the drivers looking up at McMurray: Martin Truex, Jr. (one), Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (one), and Jeff Burton (none).
Most of those drivers mentioned, in the last paragraph don’t have a Daytona 500 win. Only Gordon has won at both Daytona and Indy. It just goes to show you that McMurray, while keeping a job has done far better than it seems, with the prospects of potentially improving in 2014.
“I think we’ve had a lot of opportunities to win this year, and we’ve had some bad luck,” said Earnhardt Ganassi Racing co-owner Felix Sabates Sunday. “If you look at all our races this year, some it’s our fault that we lost, but some of the races we just get caught in accidents that wasn’t our fault.
“I’m excited about next year, but I’m more excited about the next five races because we have our own Chase. The guy that finishes first out of the Chase gets a huge bonus, and that could help a lot of the expenses we had this year if Jamie finishes the first guy out of the Chase.”
Right now, McMurray’s in position to do that, 14th in the standings with his best average finish (15.8) in nearly a decade. Next week comes Martinsville, one of the veteran’s best tracks where he’s a rare “slam dunk” for a top 10 or better.
“Winning,” said the driver, “It’s not just about me, it’s about everybody within our whole group. You know, probably more so the 1 guys because they’re the ones that are in Victory Lane. But it’s so cool to see their faces and know that when we go to Martinsville, you have confidence, everybody does.”
It’s a quotable that says all the right things, the “nice guy” that’s kept McMurray friends with so many. Yes, perhaps the best line on his resume is that he’s kept a job for so long. The majority of his victories have come at places where plates level the playing field. But when you put yourself in position to win, even at Daytona and Talladega you still have to capitalize on said opportunities.
That’s how McMurray stays employed, inside a dog-eat-dog NASCAR world where he’s spent most of it rumored to lose his seat. At some point, someone will realize that while certainly not a Hall of Fame accomplishment, it’s an achievement that should be appreciated far more than it should be attacked.
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