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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side By Side: Should Roush Let Jamie McMurray Go?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: There’s much speculation that Jamie McMurray will lose his ride at Roush Fenway Racing. You make the call: should he be retained in the No. 26 car for 2009? Or if you were in charge, would you be sending him to the unemployment line?

Jamie McMurray Must Go

In the summer of 2005, a dream came true for McMurray. After showing great promise, winning in only his second Cup start, McMurray went on to only achieve moderate success at Chip Ganassi Racing. He was looking for a new ride; and with Mark Martin looking to step out of his No. 6 Roush Ford as soon as he possibly could, a car owner needed an heir for his flagship car.

And McMurray, indeed, seemed the perfect fit. He was young, good looking, and seemed to possess the skill to steer a car into victory lane. But McMurray had been struggling to break through in his years at Ganassi, narrowly missing the Chase in 2004 and eventually missing it in 2005; however, his upswing attracted Jack Roush to bring in a driver via free agency, something he rarely had done before.

Most of Roush’s drivers had been, and still are, homegrown discoveries who made their ascent through NASCAR in Roush equipment. But he made an exception in this case, and signed McMurray in ’05 to begin driving the No. 6 car in 2007. But those plans changed when Kurt Busch decided to part ways with Roush, leaving the No. 97 seat open for 2006. After a big squabble between Ganassi and Roush, McMurray was released one year early from his contract to drive the No. 26 (Roush changed the number from 97 to rid him of any memories of Busch). The marriage seemed perfect; but the honeymoon wouldn’t last long.

McMurray’s start at Roush was a sign of things to come. In the 2006 Daytona 500, he got caught up in a wreck after running well for much of the race. Several races later, his and Carl Edwards’s lack of performance warranted a crew chief switch, further disrupting McMurray’s transition to his new organization. He finished the 2006 season with no wins, only three top fives, seven top 10s, a 14-race string of finishes outside the top 20 to end the season, and seven DNFs. He finished 25th in the points.

2007 offered little improvement for McMurray; he still scored only three top fives and nine top 10s. At least the team did win a race and a pole, while the driver improved his points standing position to 17th. But McMurray also eliminated himself from contention many times due to wrecked racecars.

He has also wrecked his share of Ford equipment in 2008, with only two top 10s and four top 15s. 22nd in the points, McMurray has led only six laps, and even fell out of the Top 35 before the Martinsville race (although he did manage to race his way back in).

Simply put, these are not the results that the man is getting paid to put up – especially considering McMurray joined a team that was a year and a half removed from a championship. Granted, Roush Racing struggled mightily as a whole for McMurray’s first year, but the driver’s inconsistency has proven to be more than a result of a transitional slump.

THOMPSON: JAMIE MCMURRAY, UNFULFILLED EXPECTATIONS

McMurray has had almost two and a half years to prove that he is worthy of his ride, and has failed. He has only been in true contention to win a race just three times in three years: at Daytona in July 2007 (where he won), at Sonoma in June 2007 (where he ran out of gas and finished 37th), and at Dover in June 2006 (where he finished second to teammate Matt Kenseth). In 2004 and 2005 at Ganassi, he contended for many more races and narrowly missed the Chase in far inferior equipment.

With drivers like Ryan Newman, Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, Dave Blaney and possibly Martin Truex Jr. on the market, McMurray should be sweating. He also should sweat because Roush has to downsize his team. Though he does not have to do this until 2010, there is no need to let McMurray do little more than keep a seat warm for an extra year… so that being said, what are his options?

The likely scenario for Roush Fenway, regarding the downsizing of their team, is to export one of their teams to Yates Racing. If this does happen, then that may be the best destination for McMurray. He would get to go to an organization with similar equipment and be the number one driver there. This would help boost his confidence, which the lack thereof is likely his biggest obstacle right now.

Haas CNC Racing also has a revolving door of drivers on its No. 70 Chevy, and needs a proven driver to place that car back in the Top 35. McMurray would be a good fit for this team – it is not a top-tier team, but he is not a top-tier driver right now. Haas also seems to have pretty good equipment, particularly the wind tunnel, and is simply in need of a veteran presence to lead it toward success.

If Truex leaves DEI, McMurray would not be a bad replacement for the No. 1 Chevy, especially since that team has struggled some. He also may fit in at Gillett Evernham if Carpentier does not pan out in the No. 10 car. Though Blaney is likely to remain at Bill Davis Racing in the No. 22 Toyota, McMurray would likely fit in well for a team that often struggles.

McMurray is not a bad driver. He has won two Sprint Cup races on two of the circuit’s most legendary tracks; he has narrowly missed the Chase twice, and has done enough to warrant Roush wanting to sign him. But since then, he has done little more than disappoint. It seems that he does not fit into the system at Roush Fenway, and may need to take a step back before taking a step forward. Like Darrell Waltrip said at the beginning of this season, McMurray needs to start running more Nationwide Series races to get his confidence back. With sponsorship at a premium in that series, his good looks and big name could help, and with the right funding, he could run in the top five much easier than he could in Cup. This would help him regain the confidence that is needed to run so well.

Jack Roush, it’s time to make the right decision: Let McMurray go a year early from his contract while focusing on getting better performance out of the rest of your teams and drivers. Re-sign Ragan, and find sponsorship for the No. 6 car; for when it comes to the No. 26, it’s time for McMurray to go. – Doug Turnbull

Jamie McMurray Should Stay

It’s beyond debate that McMurray’s tenure at Roush Fenway Racing has not lived up to the expectations which were set when the deal was announced in 2005. That said, given the unique situation the No. 26 team finds itself in, there really isn’t any reason for McMurray to be released from his driving duties at the house of Roush.

While he has failed to make the Chase during his time in the No. 26, McMurray did deliver the Pepsi 400 trophy to Roush Fenway Racing in 2007. No matter the distance of the event – be it 400 or 500 miles – the Daytona trophy is something that everyone seeks, and despite his car owner’s long history, McMurray is one of only three drivers to deliver such a trophy to Jack Roush. This is the only really notable accomplishment that McMurray has to list on his resume; but nonetheless, it’s worthwhile to mention.

The real merit of keeping McMurray, however, is his level of Cup experience. McMurray has raced full-time in Sprint Cup since 2003 and has started 199 consecutive Cup races. There are very few, if any, drivers on the current market that have experience like that – especially in the new CoTs – which leave replacement options for McMurray in the No. 26 extremely limited.

One look at Roush Fenway’s current development stable shows a lack of drivers ready and deserving of a Cup ride. Erik Darnell, the veteran of Roush’s development program and a three-year Truck Series veteran, has only two top 10s to show for his 2008 truck campaign and has never managed to finish in the top 10 in Truck Series points. Those are not very impressive results for the driver that took over Edwards’s old truck.

Behind Darnell, Roush has a promising but very green Truck Series rookie in Colin Braun – a driver who is still getting the hang of ovals in general – and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., an ARCA Re/Max Series rookie. Putting any of these drivers in the No. 26, the worst running of Roush’s five teams, would spell disaster. Struggling or not, McMurray has consistently kept his car in the Top 35 and in the show, something a very green rookie would have a much harder time doing.

In short, to replace McMurray, Roush would have to hire out of house, something he has often hesitated to do (and seeing how McMurray has worked so far, may not be willing to do again). Plus, the situation is further complicated by the fact that the No. 26 has a murky future after 2009. With the ownership cap coming into effect in 2010 and Roush needing to cut a team, it will be the No. 26 that’s likely on the chopping block. No accomplished driver is going to step into a one-year ride, begging the question, “Why get rid of McMurray?”

If Roush has the sponsors to run five cars in 2009, there’s no reason not to. And should he choose to do so, McMurray is the driver choice that makes sense. He knows Roush Fenway, knows his teammates, and, if nothing else, is capable enough to keep his car in the field, provide feedback, and here and there contend to steal a win.

On a strictly performance level, there’s no question that McMurray should be canned. He has underachieved in very good equipment. But considering the situation of the No. 26 team in 2009, he fits the seat. – Bryan Davis Keith