2008 Ride: No. 26 Roush Fenway Racing Ford
2008 Sponsor: Crown Royal/Irwin Industrial Tools
2008 Owners: Geoff Smith/Jack Roush/John Henry
2008 Crew Chief: Larry Carter
Stats: 36 races, 0 wins, 4 top fives, 11 top 10s, 0 poles, 16th in points
Best Finish: Third – three times (Texas, Phoenix, Homestead in November)
High Point: It is often the last few races of a season that help set the tone for the next with race teams, and the same could be said for the No. 26 bunch as 2008 drew to a close. In the final six races, starting at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Jamie McMurray and crew chief Larry Carter finished worse than seventh on only one occasion – a 38th place at Martinsville – while accumulating all four of his top-five finishes. Even the Martinsville fluke came only due to a rear gear failure after McMurray had led 35 laps.
To win races, you must first put yourself in position to win, and the Crown Royal Team did just that during this stretch – peaking with three consecutive third-place runs in the final three races. It might not be three consecutive championships, but like Bill Murray says in What About Bob? “I’m doing the work, I’m baby steppin’… I’m not a slacker!”
Low Point: Had it not been for catching a gust of wind just right on July 3rd, 2007 and narrowly edging Kyle Busch by .005 seconds at Daytona, the cynic could say McMurray might not even have a ride at Roush Fenway Racing. Back to defend his title in the midst of a disappointing season, the veteran was hoping for a boost but instead had a hard crash en route to finishing a disappointing 32nd this July.
Of course, that was the tip of the iceberg when it came to rough times at the No. 26 car. Back-to-back finishes of 40th and 43rd at Bristol and Atlanta in the spring weren’t much fun, forcing the team out of the Top 35 in owner points and causing them to qualify for Martinsville on speed. And even when things went well, bad luck seemed to always jump up and bite when they least expected it. McMurray’s best chance for victory – at Dover in the fall – was eliminated after being taken out by Robby Gordon in a crash while running third.
In the midst of all the struggles, perhaps the lowest point of all was a series of rumors that McMurray may not even serve out his tenure at Roush Fenway Racing, claiming the only reason he remained there was because his sponsor denied a possible release (those rumors were never confirmed).
Summary: By every account, McMurray should be one of the names that is synonymous with NASCAR. He’s a sponsor’s dream: good looking, articulate, and a clean-cut guy with about as much baggage as a Cuban refugee. He is a veteran of the Sprint Cup Series of almost seven years, driving for one of its top-tier teams. Yet, he only has a pair of wins under his belt, and continues to toil in near obscurity.
From the outset, McMurray’s tenure with Roush was supposed to be a match made in heaven. You had an ultra-marketable, likable and talented driver who for the most part had always been seen as the guy saddled with carrying the cars that were given to him. His equipment at Chip Ganassi Racing were cars that would run near or just outside the top 10 – but without enough juice to be considered weekly contenders. However, in joining forces with Roush Racing, big things were expected once McMurray slipped into what was the No. 97 car at the beginning of 2006 – a group that had just two years earlier won the closest points battle in history with the inaugural 2004 Nextel Cup.
Sadly, the man has never come close to meeting expectations. His first year after joining Roush in 2006, McMurray recorded an average finish of 25.3, his lowest since joining the Cup Series. He has not fared much better in subsequent seasons, improving marginally to results of 20.8 and 20.1, respectively – good enough for no better than 16th in points. McMurray has consistently been the underperformer of the Roush Fenway bunch, often looking more like the bastard stepchild of the Wood Brothers and Yates Racing rather than for the chief Ford powerhouse in NASCAR. With just one year left on his contract – and Roush forced to drop one of his five teams after this season to be in accordance with NASCAR rules – McMurray better change that perception quickly.
Team Ranking: Fifth among Roush Fenway’s five-driver fleet.
2009 Outlook: In the midst of McMurray’s stunning late season turnaround – where the No. 26 car went from Roush Fenway experiment gone horribly wrong to a weekly top-five contender – the announcement was made that Larry Carter would be replaced by former crew chief Donnie Wingo. This move is puzzling, as McMurray never made the Chase, contended for wins, or was consistently a top 10 car when the two were previously together over at Chip Ganassi Racing. With that in mind, is lending Carter to Paul Menard and Yates Racing the answer? McMurray seems to think so, though, as the relationship he has with Wingo goes far beyond a strictly professional one. Sometimes, that can be more important than just results… just ask Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Quote of the Year: “I am all for the crew chief change, because I’ve worked with the crew chief in the past. He’s like my best friend, and ever since I left Ganassi, I have remained very good friends with Donnie. The whole time I was at Ganassi, I can remember seeing crew chiefs that had an engineering background and thinking in my head, ‘Damn, I really wish I had a crew chief with that background, because I think that would take me to that next level. Instead of running sixth to 12th, we’ll maybe contend for wins.’ But I didn’t realize how great I had it. I’ve missed Donnie ever since. Larry’s done a great job, but you kind of get used to working with someone, and I feel like everyone I’ve had since, I’ve compared to my times with Donnie. And those were probably some of the best races for me. Next year, I think, should be my best year ever.” – Jamie McMurray on reuniting with crew chief Donnie Wingo
2006 Frontstretch Grade: D
2007 Grade: C
2008 Grade: C