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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Weekend Lowdown: Jamie McMurray a Favorite Despite Mishap

This was not the start to 2010 that Jamie McMurray was hoping for.

For the driver who had already knocked off the offseason rust at Daytona in December during WKA Kart Week and again last weekend in the Rolex 24, it wasn’t necessarily because the first Big One of the season – in the first Budweiser Shootout practice – forced him to a backup car that was frustrating, but more so because the lack of practice time stunted his ability to develop early chemistry with his new crew chief and team.

A late addition to the Shootout lineup when NASCAR allowed previous Daytona winners into the event, McMurray eyed this weekend’s 75-lap exhibition and the accompanying extra practice sessions as an opportunity to build a rapport with his new team at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing. Unfortunately for the 2007 Coke Zero 400 winner, having to go to a backup car and swap engines limited the track time needed to work out the kinks.

Still, an opportunity to compete Saturday night is a bonus for the No. 1 team.

“I’m excited that they changed the rules and let me be a part of it because you can’t simulate stuff like pit-road calls or the crew chief calling you out of the box,” McMurray said prior to Shootout practice. “And even though you get to do that in the 150s, you’d rather have as many opportunities as you can.”

With the No. 1 team already busy repairing its car in the garage, teammate Juan Pablo Montoya ran into problems of his own just minutes into the night’s second practice session, after contact with Kurt Busch sent Busch hard into the wall and the No. 42 team into the garage with slight damage.

It certainly wasn’t a good start for two teams with high expectations this weekend.

Still, for either team to have a chance at a win Saturday night or in next weekend’s season-opening Daytona 500, both Earnhardt-Ganassi drivers know they’ll need to help each other to get to victory lane.

“Every time we come to a plate track I feel really good about it. But when you come to these races it’s not always about being the fastest car, it’s about putting yourself in the best position at the end and having someone that will help you,” McMurray admitted, “It will be critical for Juan and I to get together and be loyal to each other, and I don’t sense that being a problem. Our friendship and communication just in the past month has grown tremendously. It will be critical for us to work together if one of us wants to win.”

While Montoya has had more recent success than McMurray with a Chase appearance last season, it’s McMurray who has had more success on the restrictor-plate tracks, in particular at Daytona. While most fans remember McMurray’s exciting photo finish victory at Daytona in July of 2007, many forget he was just half a lap away from winning this weekend’s event one year ago, and he won at Talladega in November.

Both wins are impressive feats within themselves, but remember his previous employer, Roush Fenway Racing, didn’t exactly have the strongest restrictor-plate program. A jump to Earnhardt-Ganassi is undoubtedly an upgrade, especially on the plate tracks, and don’t think this team, however new they may be, will be happy with a top-10 finish.

If McMurray and crew chief Kevin Manion can work through whatever communication problems they may face this weekend, there is no reason to think they can’t win Saturday. If they do, Thursday’s unfortunate practice accident will be a distant memory.

And this will be the perfect start to 2010.

What You Need To Know

Race Coverage
All times Eastern

February 6

1 p.m. – Daytona 500 pole qualifying
4:30 p.m. – Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200
8 p.m. – Budweiser Shootout

What’s the Odds?
Favorable bets for this weekend’s Sprint Cup race using BetUS.com

Denny Hamlin: 17/2
Jeff Gordon: 8/1
Jamie McMurray: 25/1

Advice: It’s an exhibition race at a superspeedway… need I say more? Every driver has a chance for the win so throw some money down on the underdogs. I really like McMurray at 25/1 after his 2007 win and a near win in last year’s Shootout with a Roush team that typically doesn’t run well at restrictor-plate tracks. A move to Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing is an upgrade…at least at Talladega and Daytona.

Frontstretch Live Blog

The Frontstretch live blog kicks off Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. with live coverage of Daytona 500 qualifying, and concludes that night after the Budweiser Shootout. Make sure to stop by and join in the chat as your favorite Frontstretch writers breakdown all of the on-track action live.

Drivers to Watch

ARCA

Danica Patrick (No. 7 GoDaddy.com Chevy) – Patrick’s first stock car start… admit it, you know you’re interested.

Alli Owens (No. 15 ElectrifyingCareers.com Chevy) – Could very well upstage her more famous female counterpart in a very quick Bill Venturini-prepared car.

Nelson Piquet Jr. (No. 6 ESR Toyota) – The shunned former F1 driver will be in good equipment, but will he be ready for the high banks of Daytona?

Bobby Gerhart (No. 5 Lucas Oil Slick Mist Chevy) – The favorite every time the series hits a restrictor-plate track. Will be the favorite again Saturday.

James Buescher (No. 51 Phoenix Racing Toyota) – The 2009 event winner will be in a James Finch-prepared car this weekend. Finch at Daytona = FAST.

Sprint Cup

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – After a tumultuous 2009 season, how will the No. 88 team unload in Daytona? More than likely… fast!

Mark Martin – Fans would love nothing more than to cheer Martin to a Cup Series win at Daytona, even if it is an exhibition race.

Kyle Busch – One thing is for certain. In a non-points paying race, Busch will leave it all on the line.

Tony Stewart – Immediate emergence of SHR shocked everyone last year. Will they be even better in 2010?

Ken Schrader – Who isn’t rooting for Schrader to win this race? Unlike other underdogs John Andretti and Derrike Cope, he’s got a good car.

LOOKING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL

WINNERS

Slick Mist Oil 200: Buescher
Budweiser Shootout: Earnhardt Jr.

2010 Predictions: 1 race, 0 win(s), 1 top five, 1 top 10

Have a prediction/thought on the race? Send Mike a Tweet

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