The year is 2002, and there is buzz in the then Busch Series garage and among fans about a 26-year-old driver seemingly in the fast lane to the top. By season’s end, he looks to be proving to all takers that he’s worthy of the talk – he’ll end up with a pair of wins and will finish in the top 10 over 40% of the time. He’ll also finish sixth in points and win in a then-Winston Cup race as well, in only his second start as a fill-in for the injured Sterling Marlin. In fact, his first Cup win will come before his first Busch Series win. He is a sponsor’s dream, a genuinely likeable young man with a floppy bowl haircut and an easy smile. Everyone likes him because of his outgoing personality. There seems to be no limit to where this young driver will go, and after he wins Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors and finishes 13th in points in the Cup Series in 2003, now driving for a brand-new Cup team with a new and extravagant owner in Chip Ganassi while winning two more Busch Series races on a limited schedule, his future seems written in stone.
Now fast forward to 2009 and the future is uncertain for Jamie McMurray, and the driver finds himself at a crossroads in his career. Spending three Cup seasons at Chip Ganassi Racing, where he finished no lower than 13th in driver points, while he didn’t win another race after that first unlikely win in Marlin’s car, McMurray amassed 19 top-five and 48 top-10 finishes in 114 starts. Had Chase rules been what they are now in 2004 and 2005, McMurray would have had two appearances in the championship hunt under his belt.
And things seemed to be looking up. When it seemed as though McMurray couldn’t quite get over that last hurdle into the Chase in Ganassi equipment, he was offered a ride at perpetual championship contender Roush Racing for 2006 and beyond, replacing Kurt Busch on a team that had won the 2004 Cup championship. Fans and media rubbed their hands together with glee – finally, McMurray would have the equipment to match his talent. It was only a matter of time now, before McMurray would finally win races and contend for championships.
But it never happened that way. A 25th-place points finish in 2006 could, perhaps, be attributed to McMurray adjusting to a new team and the team to him, but a quick look at season statistics suggests otherwise. McMurray’s numbers were actually better for the first half of the year than the second, but it was a big change, so everyone agreed to wait and see. Things were a bit better in 2007, with a win at Daytona in July and a 17th-place points finish. But that was about as good as it got. McMurray finished 16th in points in 2008, and the pressure was on for 2009, where the fact remained that Roush Fenway Racing will have to cut loose one driver at year’s end to fulfill NASCAR’s new four-team limit per owner.
Early in 2009, McMurray seemed to be making an argument for keeping him around, especially as teammate David Ragan floundered badly to start the year after just missing the Chase in 2008. However, McMurray couldn’t quite find the finishes, and Ragan had a committed sponsor in UPS. McMurray’s sponsor, Crown Royal decided to switch over to teammate Matt Kenseth’s car for the 2010 season-choosing a former champion over McMurray, despite McMurray’s former potential and outgoing personality.
And just like that, McMurray’s best chances may be behind him. He was given permission by Roush Fenway Racing to speak with other car owners and well, when that happens, the writing is on the wall.
McMurray appears to have options for 2010 – there is the possibility that Roush Fenway will ship McMurray and his team virtually intact to satellite operation Yates Racing. RFR has a strong relationship with Ford, and would like to keep as many drivers as possible in the Ford stable, as the information gathered will benefit the organization. But Yates Racing isn’t like the satellite teams for rival Hendrick Motorsports, who are as likely to win every week as Rick Hendrick’s own teams are. Yates, despite being a powerhouse team a decade ago, is struggling to find footing in today’s Sprint Cup field, and with the possibility of McMurray bringing Crown Royal with him gone, may find it hard to attract a sponsor for McMurray, who is currently 20th in points – several spots ahead of Ragan and Yates drivers Paul Menard and Bobby Labonte, but Menard has sponsorship secured, and Labonte appears to be sticking around as well.
It’s also been reported that McMurray might return to Chip Ganassi’s fold next year, filling the vacancy in the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi as Martin Truex Jr. heads to Michael Waltrip Racing next year. While the move would be a step down in equipment, it would make McMurray the number two driver in the organization instead of low man on the Roush totem pole. Either move would mean less pressure on McMurray, which might suit him fine. It’s also possible that McMurray will land with a smaller independent team or a new team in the series. Also possible but less likely is a full-time Nationwide Series ride – McMurray is an excellent Nationwide driver despite his recent Cup struggles, and that is an arena in which he has the potential to really shine.
McMurray, like a few other mid-pack drivers, still has the curb appeal to keep a sponsor happy. He’s upbeat, almost bouncy at times, still has that quick smile and the ability to laugh at himself. He looks good on camera and is well-spoken. While it might seem that talent is being overlooked, it often is in NASCAR these days, and that could actually play to McMurray’s advantage. He might be a mid-pack driver, but his personality is memorable, and like it or not, that is important in today’s arena.
It’s a tough year to be without a ride, as economic woes cause teams to curb operations, not expand. However, McMurray could prove to be at an advantage even here – he’s not going to command the salary of a big name, but he’s got enough star power to satisfy a sponsor and keep an owner happy.
While Jamie McMurray sits at a crossroads – it’s unlikely that he will ever have the numbers that many once thought he would produce, but he’ll land somewhere, and likely contend for a number of top-10 finishes in any given year – it still appears that he’ll have a few choices of direction to take. If he chooses wisely, he still has a solid career in front of him, though his time as a rising star has passed.