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Holding a Pretty Wheel: For Jamie McMurray, the Writing is on the Wall

When NASCAR’s four-teams-to-an-owner policy goes into effect after this year, Roush Fenway Racing is the only major team to be affected. The organization will be forced to drop one of its five Sprint Cup teams, and that hasn’t exactly been a secret – the day has been coming for a couple of years.

However, some people were taken by surprise when the news came out earlier this week that the team to go would be the No. 26, currently driven by seventh-year driver Jamie McMurray. Perhaps the timing of the news was a surprise, but the contents shouldn’t be.

Don’t get me wrong, I genuinely like McMurray. He’s a hard guy not to like. But, from a performance standpoint – well, the writing has been on the wall for a long time. The decision was going to come down to either McMurray or third-year driver David Ragan, who drives the No. 6 – the original Roush team. Not only is Jack Roush unlikely to want to part with the team that put him on the map, he’s also unlikely to part with a young driver who has shown great improvement in his short career.

There are also numbers that tell this tale. McMurray has two wins, 29 top-five finishes and 77 top 10s in 229 career starts. He has three poles with an average start of 20th and an average finish of 19.2 over that time.

In his 81 starts to date, Ragan has yet to win, but does have eight top-five finishes and 18 top 10s, with an average start of 24th and an average finish of 20.8, about one spot below McMurray.

If you look at the percentage of each drivers total races in which they have finished in the top 10, McMurray has a slight edge over Ragan with a .336 top-10 percentage to Ragan’s .222. McMurray also has a slightly higher percentage of top-five finishes at .126 to Ragan’s .098.

But, Ragan only has 81 starts to date. McMurray made 78 starts between 2002-2004, and this is where the numbers get interesting. In those first two seasons plus six races, McMurray had a win, 15 top-five finishes (more than half of his career total), and 38 top 10s (also almost half of his career numbers), and one of his three poles. Over that time, his average start was 13.9 and average finish was 16.7.

While McMurray’s numbers are significantly better than Ragan’s during those first seasons, a glance back at his career stats tells a different story; While Ragan’s numbers improved markedly in his second year, McMurray’s have gone down over the course of his career, and supposedly in better equipment.

Many people thought that McMurray – who narrowly missed the Chase with Chip Ganassi Racing in 2004 and 2005, finishing 11th and 12th, respectively – would only get better in the superior Roush equipment. It never happened. McMurray’s best points finish with Roush is 16th in 2008, when Ragan only narrowly missed the Chase, ironically drawing comparisons to a younger McMurray.

So what happened to the McMurray who everyone said was being held back by the inferior Ganassi equipment? My theory is that McMurray wasn’t outclassing the stuff he was driving as so many believed. He was simply reaching and holding the potential of the cars he was in. In hindsight, McMurray and the equipment were actually a close match, not a mismatch at all.

So, faced with the choice of a 24-year-old who has shown vast improvement and a 33-year-old whose numbers have declined, Roush Fenway would be making the logical choice to let McMurray go. Odds are the team will morph into an additional team at partner Yates Racing anyway, so it’s not exactly a career ending decision for McMurray.

So, while it’s disappointing to see McMurray’s tenure at Roush Fenway coming to a probable end, it shouldn’t be a surprise. McMurray is a decent driver in top-flight equipment. He is completely likeable and should land a ride somewhere, so he shouldn’t worry too much. Not to say that it’s too late for Roush to change his mind should McMurray pull together a championship run while Ragan flounders – it just isn’t likely. While the decision might seem a little premature, the handwriting is also on the wall, and the choice is a logical one. Sometimes, nice guys really do finish last, and this time, it isn’t wrong.

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