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Thompson in Turn 5: Jamie McMurray, Unfulfilled Expectations

The news this past week that Jamie McMurray is job hunting probably does not come as a great surprise to many. Though McMurray has denied such speculation, critics have had him with one foot out the door of his Roush Fenway ride ever since the beginning of 2008. Currently 22nd in the Cup standings with just two top-10 finishes, the 31-year-old Joplin, Mo. native simply has never lived up to the hype that surrounded him in 2005 as a player in perhaps the silliest of Silly Seasons in NASCAR history. His hiring was the culmination of a series of moves that led to power plays, contract squabbles and some unrealistically high expectations – none of which may ever be fully realized.

The events of that 2005 Silly Season were really something to behold. First came the news that McMurray had reached agreement to drive for Roush – even though he was still under contract with Chip Ganassi Racing through 2006. It was looked at as a positive change for McMurray, who, after missing out on the Chase for two straight years, reached an agreement with a team that put all five of its cars in the title hunt – making them the premier organization in Cup at the time. But Ganassi, clearly not pleased with the prospects of losing McMurray, chose to initially refuse to allow his top driver to opt out of his contract, a decision that would delay a move to Roush until the beginning of 2007. The news created a firestorm of opinions surrounding the appropriateness of McMurray negotiating with another team owner when he had well over a year remaining on his agreement with Ganassi; and in return, Ganassi’s defiant refusal to simply allow McMurray to move over to the Roush camp to replace the then-retiring Mark Martin generated considerable debate, as well.

Shortly thereafter, in perhaps an even more surprising turn of events, NASCAR’s defending champion Kurt Busch announced that he was jumping the Roush ship to replace the legendary Rusty Wallace in the almost equally legendary No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge. Like McMurray, Busch requested his release from Roush for the 2006 season; but just like Ganassi, Roush refused to allow his championship caliber driver to bolt the team early. It was a cruel twist of irony that threatened to shut down both deals; however, in the end both McMurray and Busch were granted their requests to move to new teams. The owners fully capitulated – albeit after some backroom deals were made – and McMurray was permitted to move to Roush at the conclusion of the 2005 season, with Jack Roush responding in kind and allowing Kurt Busch to defect a year early to Penske.

It was quite a Silly Season turn of events, to be sure.

By the time the release was given, McMurray’s original plans of replacing a retiring Martin had derailed; instead, he essentially replaced Busch, working with the same team but with a new car number – the No. 26 instead of Busch’s No. 97. Martin, who had originally agreed to stay another year when it was thought that McMurray would be held to his contract with Ganassi, later agreed to stick around to help old friend Jack Roush out of his dilemma as to how to fill the void left by the unexpected exodus of Busch.

As the year began, McMurray came to Roush amid a lot of hullabaloo; but with great expectations, as well. Rumored to have been lured away from Ganassi with one of the most lucrative contract offers in NASCAR history – reported at $20 million plus performance bonuses – it appeared that McMurray had arrived at just the right time to realize his full potential. And considering the successful team he had just landed at – a team that had just won the 2004 Cup championship – he seemed a sure bet to become a major player in NASCAR for years to come.

I tracked McMurray’s ascension through the NASCAR ranks with some special interest as my father, shortly before his death, had proclaimed that Jamie McMurray was “Good… and would end up a Cup champion” someday. This statement was made back in 2002, when McMurray was still driving for Brewco Motorsports in what is now the Nationwide Series and not even a thought on the Cup Series horizon. But my father always had a good eye for driving talent, regardless of whether it was in the highest ranks of open-wheel, stock cars, or on the local racing scene. And as I watched, it became apparent that he was not the only one that recognized McMurray’s potential. Shortly after my father’s prediction, Chip Ganassi announced that the following year Jamie Mac would move into the Texaco/Havoline Dodge full-time as he expanded his team to three cars. And then – due to an injury to Sterling Marlin – McMurray was called up to sub, and incredibly won the fall race at Charlotte in only his second NASCAR Cup Series start!

All I could think at the time was, “Holy cow… can Dad ever pick ‘em.”

The driver’s 2003 freshman effort only proved to strengthen the argument that McMurray was heading towards a great NASCAR career. He finished 13th in championship points and beat out Roush up-and-comer Greg Biffle, who came to Cup after winning championship titles in both the Craftsman Truck Series and the then-Busch Series, for Rookie of the Year honors. He was certainly off to one heck of a good start.

2004, though certainly not a banner year, also did nothing to hurt McMurray’s growing reputation as a potential star. Though finishing 11th in points and missing the Chase for the Championship, the soft-spoken driver posted 23 top-10 finishes. Following that up with a four top-five, 10 top-10 performance one year later, he apparently did enough in questionable Ganassi equipment to convince Jack Roush that McMurray was the right guy to replace the immensely popular Martin.

Following in Martin’s footsteps was going to be a tall order, and it’s one you can bet that Jack Roush and his management team fully considered when deciding on a driver best suited to fill that role. Roush certainly knows racecar drivers, having his share of success in picking them, and McMurray seemed to possess all the necessary qualities he desired. Not only did Roush believe the man was talented enough to strap into the seat of his No. 6 Ford, but McMurray also appeared a success in the boardrooms, a trait that’s equally as important in today’s NASCAR. And like Martin, Jamie McMurray is a nice guy, too; he is seemingly always in control of his emotions, both on and off the track. Young and handsome, Jack Roush believed that he would have a driver that he could not possibly go wrong on.

But now, more than two years after McMurray’s debut with Roush Fenway Racing, it appears that something or someone missed the mark. McMurray is still the polite and well-liked young man that has continued to conduct himself as the gentleman that he was before signing that lucrative contract in 2005… but the on-track performance expected of him has simply never materialized.

Currently without a top-five finish this season, McMurray simply hasn’t produced in the manner that a driver in the quality of equipment that Roush Fenway is known to provide to their stable of racers is expected. After 85 races, all Roush Fenway has to show for their sizable investment in McMurray is one win, 18 top-10 finishes and 25th and 17th place standings in points for 2006 and 2007, respectfully.

How could a career going so well have so drastically changed directions so fast?

Who’s to blame?

That’s hard to say; there’s not one particular problem to point to. It certainly is both puzzling and hard to figure how even the best drivers have found the right combination to rise to the top of their profession sometimes. It all seems so easy, as if everything just aligns properly. A driver at the top of his game pairs with a crew chief that seems almost to be able to read his mind; holes open when wrecks seem unavoidable; a consistently winning driver’s car performs as if it is bulletproof.

STAFF SIDE-BY-SIDE: SHOULD ROUSH LET MCMURRAY GO?

But these are not a set of circumstances that have graced McMurray with any regularity during his tenure at Roush Fenway. In fact, it is quite the opposite. And even when McMurray was given the ultimate authority to shape his program – bringing on Larry Carter as crew chief and revamping the No. 26 team from top to bottom – it did nothing to change what were ultimately disappointing and inconsistent results.

In the end, barring a miracle, Jack Roush will release McMurray before the end of his contract. Even if it’s not until 2009, he surely cannot resign him with the performance – or lack thereof – that the two have experienced for more than two years. And when it happens, the move won’t be personal… just business.

Still, I’m hoping Jamie McMurray lands on his feet and finds that winning combination somewhere. And, in the process… fulfill my father’s faith in him from many years ago.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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