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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Jamie McMurray – Predictions of His Demise Were Premature

Roush Fenway Racing appears to be heading into 2009 with all five of its cars hitting on all cylinders. Considering four of those men will finish the year 13th or better in Sprint Cup points, that’s hardly a big surprise. But to have the fifth car suddenly running with the rest… it’s something you couldn’t have imagined as little as six months ago.

But Jamie McMurray’s late-season charge has been both impressive and unexpected – especially when you consider he was the “victim” of a Silly Season move that never happened. Remember, the Joplin, Mo. native had been reported to be out of a ride at Roush Fenway Racing back in early June. And when reports surfaced that McMurray would be ousted from the leading Ford team’s stable, perhaps as early as the end of this year, few would have called themselves surprised. After three years of struggle and just one victory, many had already concluded that changes were inevitable – changes that could only mean Jack Roush giving up the ghost and starting anew with the No. 26 Crown Royal team.

It certainly made good sense at the end of May, when McMurray had posted another lackluster, back-of-the-pack 23rd-place finish at Lowe’s Motor Speedway that ironically left him 23rd in the points. Through the first 12 races of the 2008 season the 32-year-old, now in his sixth full season of Cup, had only one top-10 finish with just five laps led on the season. Clearly, a race team out of the ultra-competitive RFR camp performing so poorly would not stand.

So, the June 4th edition of Turn 5 even took the bait hook, line and sinker, echoing the mainstream opinion in a piece titled, Jamie McMurray: Unfilled Expectations – it was a piece centered around a theme that sometimes, things just don’t work out.

“In the end, barring a miracle, Jack Roush will release McMurray before the end of his contract,” I said back then. “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.”

While still trying to fully digest the belly full of crow’s pie that I’ve been forced to eat based on those statements, let me say that it did not take miracles for McMurray to retain his employment with Roush Fenway – just some good finishes. The flower has been a little slow in blooming; but in the past few races, bloom it has!

Over the last five weeks, McMurray has ticked off impressive results, with four top-10 finishes that include consecutive third-place runs. The only exception was Martinsville, where while running amongst the leaders early and leading a handful of laps the No. 26 Ford experienced mechanical problems which required McMurray to spend 35 laps behind pit road for repairs. He finished 38th.

So, how in the heck was this turnaround made possible? First off, McMurray never bought into the news of his imminent demise. In fact, he denied the reports while his boss, Jack Roush, consistently stated that he was signed through the 2009 season – and that he would be with Roush Fenway Racing at least until then.

Speaking with Marty Smith at ESPN.com about the firestorm of rumors surrounding his job status five months ago, McMurray stated, “I didn’t really pay attention to everything that happened earlier in the year. I knew what the truth was. And I knew where the media was coming up with some of their stories. I knew where they were coming from, but they didn’t have the whole story.”

Apparently, what the media had was nothing more than supposition. Once someone whispered “off the record” that McMurray was under fire, it was fodder enough to put two and two together and go to print. Unfortunately, the total came back to haunt them as something other than four. But so believable was the scenario that McMurray had been sacked at RFR, insiders, including other team owners, assumed the situation incorrectly, as well. McMurray told Smith, “At the same time, when I was getting fired, I was having numerous car owners call me and try to hire me,” he explained. “So, it would really suck if you thought you were going to lose your job and weren’t going to have one. Everyone was saying I was getting fired, but at the same time, I was flattered by the amount of teams that were calling me.”

It’s easy to jump to conclusions, though, considering what had already transpired since McMurray’s much-ballyhooed arrival at Roush Fenway. After a highly publicized early release from Chip Ganassi Racing that had seen McMurray almost qualify for the Chase twice in his time with the second-tier outfit, McMurray had slipped significantly in his new ride. With Ganassi, the Cup newcomer had posted 13th-, 11th- and 12th-place points finishes, which made him a seemingly sure bet to be a championship contender with equipment as stout as RFR’s. However, with only few and far between glimpses of the potential Roush saw in him, McMurray posted dismal seasons in 2006 and 2007, finishing 25th and 17th, respectfully.

But poor mathematics aside, it was wrong to pen a farewell to a still very much alive and kicking McMurray. His recent surge into 16th in points with a string of solid performances has made any thought of dumping the still promising driver with more than a year left on his contract both unwise and highly unlikely.

That McMurray was not a “hit” right out of the box with the Roush Fenway team is still as puzzling as when termination of employment talk came to a head in May. From the moment in 2005 that it was announced McMurray would move to the Roush camp, it was generally assumed that the marriage would at the very least be a cinch to qualify for the Chase. So far, it hasn’t happened – although it’s not because of a lack of effort on the part of either side.

The last word on the future of McMurray at RFR has not yet been written. But he won’t be going anywhere else soon, either. Especially if he continues to deliver the goods, he’ll finally begin to meet the high expectations set for him.

Who will make the cut at the end of next season when RFR is required to reduce their team numbers from five to four by 2010 will be interesting. And there will certainly be plenty of speculation, as decision time grows closer. With Matt Kenseth assumed to be untouchable and both Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards having recently extended their agreements with the organization, it would seem that a decision will at some point have to be made to keep either the dramatically improved David Ragan or McMurray.

But no matter what happens, most people have learned a long, hard lesson on this story. It is probably best not to jump so fast next time at the first rumor that fits a preconceived notion of how things in the NASCAR world add up – because reality is often completely different.

And that’s my view from turn 5.