The Frontstretch: How Jamie McMurray Has Single-Handedly Invalidated the Chase by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday October 20, 2010

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How Jamie McMurray Has Single-Handedly Invalidated the Chase

Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 20, 2010

 

When the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has come to a close, it will likely be remembered for the actions and success of just one driver.

With five races remaining in the Chase for the Championship, it has become quite clear over the last 10 months who the class of the field has been when it gets down to the big money; who is most deserving of the trophies, headlines, and accolades that he and his team have earned during the 36-week breakneck schedule that is the Sprint Cup Series.

That driver, of course, is Jamie McMurray.

What, you were expecting somebody else? Setting the sport on its ear many times over, we were all reminded again Saturday night why the Chase is merely a formality that is to be endured for two and a half months each fall.

With his third win this season in Saturday’s Bank of America 500, McMurray improved one position upon his runner-up finish at the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. This year has been special for McMurray for a number of reasons. Sure, he won arguably the biggest single race in motorsports – the Daytona 500 – which he followed up with the second biggest prize at the most famous track on the planet, the Brickyard 400, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Perhaps most importantly, he actually had a ride; something that in the last days of 2009 didn’t seem like it would ever really materialize. In Daytona’s Victory Lane, McMurray was driven to tears. The tears that flowed were those of joy and gratefulness, as well as the relief from the stress of the previous three months – or, more accurately, three years. Well, that same emotion was bubbling near the surface again Saturday evening in his winner’s interview upon exiting his No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, along with a unique perspective on life and racing in general.

It is a positive attitude that has been on display all season for McMurray, who is most definitely aware of how much he has to be thankful of. Back in August when he was on the bubble of making the Chase, he was less concerned about it than other drivers on the cusp of making or not making the final cut of 12 drivers to compete in the postseason. After finishing third at Bristol, he simply refused to get caught up in the – ahem – drama.

“I’ll let Bono [crew chief Kevin Manion] worry about it,” McMurray said. “He certainly is worried about it, [but] I remember the stress that goes along with that, and I’m really fortunate this year that we were able to win those two big races, because if we don’t make the Chase, it’s not going to be devastating.”

If anything, it has been liberating. Having had one of the consistently fastest cars on big tracks all year, as well as having blossomed into arguably the sport’s best restrictor plate racer, the tracks that make up the majority of the Chase are the types of places McMurray and his team have excelled at all season long: 1.5 mile tri-ovals and a plate track in Talladega.

Despite missing the Chase, Jamie McMurray has delivered a season chock full of power wins and performance when the big dollars are on the line.

Still, McMurray refused to succumb to the pressures of qualifying for a convoluted championship that the vast majority of fans have failed to embrace. Instead, he has become a bit of a throwback to a different era; drivers who show up not to contend for titles, but simply to run and win the big money races of fame and prestige that in today’s Sportscenter-centric, bullet-pointed, headline news world, carry more weight than a points system that resets itself after 26 grueling races over seven months have been contested.

In a way, McMurray has completely invalidated the Chase and made it less relevant than it was before.

Check the stats on the man this year: wins in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and the fall 500-mile race at Charlotte. He came within a whisker of winning Talladega, and was runner-up for the Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Not exactly a bad way to spend your season, winning or nearly winning the marquee races in the biggest racing series in North America. McMurray and his sponsors will get way more press winning those three events than they would have if they did make the Chase – one that is fostering ratings that continue to spiral out of control worse than Maverick and Goose following a twin engine flame out.

By now, most are familiar with McMurray’s story. He burst onto the scene nine years ago with a win in his second start while standing in for Sterling Marlin, who was motoring towards the 2002 Winston Cup before a crash at Kansas left him sidelined for the rest of the year with essentially a broken neck.

A difficult stretch at Roush Fenway Racing saw him take over the reins of a car two years removed from winning the inaugural Chase for the championship format, but then summarily dismissed following NASCAR’s four-team limit. McMurray made his way back to his first home with car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, who had now merged with the remains of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.

McMurray was getting a second chance at Sprint Cup fame with an 11th hour opportunity. It would be in what was the flagship car of DEI, an organization that gave another long-struggling driver a second chance at a career in 2001 – one that produced a similar result.

So after posting his second win at Charlotte, eight years following his first triumph in only his second start, McMurray once again stole the thunder from those who had been commanding the lion’s share of the attention lately: the 12 drivers competing for the Sprint Cup championship.

While some may have been soiling themselves Saturday night over Jimmie Johnson’s innocuous spin and predictable rebound, McMurray narrowly missed clipping a spinning Kurt Busch by mere inches moments before. McMurray dodging Busch’s Charger at the last possible second was appropriate for a number of reasons, and captured the last few years of his career in the span of about 30 feet.

In Victory Lane at Daytona in February, McMurray was reduced to a blubbering pile of goo, overcome with emotion having just won the biggest race on NASCAR’s grandest stage in a most unlikely fashion. He was a bit more composed following his Indy win, but after Charlotte Saturday evening, he was again on the verge of losing it – remaining composed only to make a point to explain his growth over the last few years, and wins.

“I don’t think I ever really got to explain that, why I cried and what was going on there,” he said in his winner’s circle interview. “I had a tough year last year; I found out the power of prayer and what that can do for you. When you get to Victory Lane and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer. And it’s something that is obviously very important to me and my family.”

McMurray has basically built a career over the last few seasons of lofting along on a gust of wind, a wing, and a prayer. Saturday night, that was on display at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and is far more compelling than anything the Chase has had to offer thus far.

Sure, there was some intrigue early on with the 150-point fine of Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart running out of gas at Loudon, only to thrust himself back into the discussion a couple of weeks later with a big win at Kansas. McMurray’s story, though, is compelling because it is sincere, genuine, real. You can’t fake tears at this level, though after sitting in an unmuffled, 140-degree, 9,000 RPM carbon monoxide mixer, it’s probably hard for even a seasoned veteran to keep his wits about him.

The same, however, cannot be said for NASCAR’s continued insistence on a championship format that virtually everyone — with the exception of its leadership and those encouraged to sell the product — has at best given the same tilted-head expression your dog elicits when you change his food on him. In Richmond, when it was apparent that McMurray would not make the Chase, his reaction highlighted the importance of winning races rather than contending for a hodgepodge of an NBA bracket, the BCS, and the NFL playoffs that is supposed to determine a 36-race season – in 10 weeks:

“There’s no frustration there at all. Our performance has been really good. We’ve just been a little bit inconsistent,” said McMurray. “I think there are a lot of guys in the Chase who would trade with me right now.”

Four weeks later, there are even more drivers who made the Chase that would gladly trade places with Jamie McMurray.

Contact Vito Pugliese

Wednesday on the Frontstretch:
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Did You Notice? … NASCAR’s Blown Call, Its New Short Track King, And Time To Kahne And Disable
Mirror Driving: Non-Chase Rewards, France Fantasies, And Faking The Truth
Beyond The Cockpit: A.J. Allmendinger on Consistency, 2011 Daytona 500, More
Sprint Cup Power Rankings: Top 15 After Charlotte-2
Top 10 Reasons Kasey Kahne Left the Track Early on Saturday Night
The Frontstretch Foto Funnies – Charlotte, October 2010

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Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
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Jacob
10/20/2010 03:12 AM
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Wow, I don’t know about Daytona. I’m not sure it’s even the biggest race in na$car. It’s not the fastest track (it wouldn’t be even without plates), it’s not the longest race, it doesn’t pay the biggest purse, and it doesn’t crown a champion. Other than being “Big Bill’s Track” and the media hype surrounding the first event of the season, it has long since lost its “SuperBowl” status. At least for me. Ah, maybe I’m just bitter ove Dale’s tragic death.

Jamie’s had an interesting season, but I will remain skeptical about his chances for next season. His consistency has been his Achilles’ Heel throughout his career.
On the bright-side for Jamie, is that he does seem to finish ahead of Jr. annually, and that means he will likely be able to make the chase in 2011 as brian figures out a way to make Jr. NOT compete for the championship even longer.

Carl D.
10/20/2010 07:40 AM
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Watching McMurray make a mockery of the chase format has been the best part of the season for me.

Craig
10/20/2010 09:54 AM
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This has been the best story all year. In the pre-Chase days McMurray would get even more press. I have always thought NASCAR has two major prizes every year, the Daytona 500 and the Championship. Now with the Chase no one cares that McMurray won the most important race of the year. Like he said after the race, the Chasers with no wins would take his year over making the Chase.

Gordon82Wins
10/20/2010 10:09 AM
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To say that McMurray has made the Chase even less relevant would be to imply that it is relevant in the first place, which it is only in the mind of Brian France and any NASCAR or ESPN employee that wants to keep their job.

rephil
10/20/2010 10:40 AM
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Being a jamie mac fan his season could be better, by being in the chase. but with key wins daytona indy and now this= good season. got nothing to do with taking away from the chase. it’s already the jj show until they change up the tracks. enough 1 1/2 milers. throw in bristol, maybe a road course(even though i hate them)not taking anything away from jj and his crew but let’s change the stinking layout by changing up some of the tracks. or maybe all of them. I don’t get chicagoland. boring boring boring, once they get spread out the winner is the guy out front no more competition. should have never ever thrown this one into the chase

MARILYN
10/20/2010 10:44 AM
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I am so happy that Jamie has finally come into his own…I have been his biggest fan for the past 6 years sporting tee shirts, cars, cup holders, posters, you name it, I have it from his # 42, # 26, and now # 1…what a great guy!!!

Carl D.
10/20/2010 11:19 AM
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Marilyn…

The nice lady I live with (aka “The Warden”) would fight you like a rabid pitt bull over who’s the biggest Jamie Mac fan. That may not scare you, but I’ve seen her take down wild boar by simply staring at them.

Don Mei
10/20/2010 11:34 AM
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“Relevant chase” is an oxymoron as opposed to a Goldman, AKA Dans Mom, who is simply a moron. McMurray is a class act and the only bright spot in another dismal Nascar season. Maybe some day we will get back to racing for wins.

yankeegranny
10/20/2010 12:47 PM
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If one criterion for being in the
Chase” were winning a completed race(not a rain shortened sham) than we would not have had a blog like this one. If they make one change to the chase, it should be to include all winners of the first 26 races and fill out the field with non-winners if there aren’t enough drivers who are winners.

Johnboy60
10/20/2010 03:22 PM
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(That may not scare you, but I’ve seen her take down wild boar by simply staring at them.)
Carl D……Now that there is funny, I don’t care who you are!!

phil h
10/20/2010 04:26 PM
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I dunno what should be done about the Series.It’s clearly declining.Change is good sometimes,but in the Chase’s instance it doesn’t seem to be.

Jacob,you sure the Daytona 500 doesn’t have the biggest purse?The purse was $18.5 million and Jamie Mac and Earnhardt Jr got $1.5 million and $1.09 million,respectively.I don’t think no other race on the grid pays that much for the top 2 finishers. The lowest paid driver Joe Nemechek got $261,424.

Matt
10/20/2010 04:46 PM
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People that say McMurray’s season makes a mockery of the Chase system are just misinformed and ignorant. He would be no closer to winning the championship under the old system. How does this have anything to do with the Chase at all, really? If you say he should be in it because he wins races, that’s fine—but it doesn’t invalidate the Chase system any more than any other points system NASCAR has ever used. If anything, you would be asking for an expanded and even more arbitrary Chase. If you think there shouldn’t be a Chase at all, as I already mentioned, then what McMurray has done is irrelevant. He wouldn’t have been very good in points under the old system either.

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