For the third time in five weekends of points-paying racing, Jamie McMurray finished up in second place at Charlotte Motor Speedway this past Sunday evening. Beaten with a perfect move by Kevin Harvick at Talladega in late April, then a better car driven by Denny Hamlin at Darlington in early May, McMurray reeled in Kurt Busch and seemingly set sail toward a second checkered flag of the season on lap 340. But a late race caution in the final 50 miles of the grueling 600-mile event bunched the field back up again, and Busch drove off to make it two-for-two at Charlotte in 2010. However, McMurray was magnanimous in defeat, heading to victory lane to pour a bottle of Coke down Busch’s firesuit, and to congratulate a driver he considers a friend.
For some, the repeated role of “first loser” would be tough to take (ask the original Four-Time) but for McMurray, it’s just more evidence that the return to Chip Ganassi and the EGR team might just prove to be the best move he ever made in his Cup career.
It might also lead to what could fairly be described as the most unexpected berth in the 2010 Chase.
As the 2009 Sprint Cup season wound toward its conclusion and the coronation of King Jimmie Johnson for the fourth straight year, the situation looked bleak – to say the least – for McMurray. The NASCAR-mandated contraction foisted upon Jack Roush meant the Cat in the Hat had to sheer his fleet of five into a more streamlined four-car outfit for the start of the 2010 season. With veterans Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards all inked to long-term contracts, linked to the promise of young David Ragan in the No. 6 car (despite his poor sophomore season) McMurray was very much the odd man out, after four largely forgettable years driving under the Roush Fenway Racing banner.
For a while in the closing stages of 2009, it looked as if the best ride McMurray, with seven full Cup seasons under his belt, would be able to secure would be in significantly lower grade start-and-park type equipment compared to the meticulously prepared Ford Fusion Cup cars he had been piloting. Enter Chip Ganassi just in the nick of time – the man for whom McMurray made his Cup debut, subbing for the injured Sterling Marlin at Talladega in October 2002. The Missouri native would go on to run 114 Cup races in his first stint for Ganassi finishing 13th, 11th and 12th in each of his three full years – the three highest overall finishes he’s secured in seven total seasons of Cup Racing.
On re-signing with his old boss in late November 2009, the man with arguably the best hair in all of NASCAR was predictably upbeat. “I am really looking forward to getting behind the wheel of their cars and once again competing for a NASCAR championship,” he said. “It will also be fun to work with some of the people that I worked with when I was there a few years ago. They have really good people there.”
Team principal Ganassi concurred with those high expectations.
“We know Jamie and understand what makes him tick as a driver,” he said. “We had a lot of success with Jamie in the early part of his career and are looking for more of the same.”
Turns out they both knew exactly what they were talking about.
Consider the evidence at the halfway point to the Chase: McMurray already has one more pole (two) in the first 13 races than he did in his entire four years (one) at RFR. In 2009, he scored one win and one top five. In 2010, he has the big win in the Daytona 500, four top fives and five top 10s, not to mention leading laps in five races. In short, McMurray is revitalized, refreshed, and ready to make a serious push for a Chase berth – and he’s got the example of teammate Juan Pablo Montoya from last year to show what can be done if you make that final field of 12.
Critically, McMurray’s bond with Kevin “Bono” Manion, now in his fourth year as crew chief of the No. 1 car, was almost instant. As McMurray noted in the post-Coke 600 press conference, “Bono was my most pleasant surprise coming to EGR… I didn’t really know him. I didn’t realize how much our personalities were alike. He’s become a really good friend of mine. I don’t know. We just seem to think alike.”
It’s exactly that kind of symbiotic thinking, allied with a revitalized sense of confidence in his driving abilities that can propel McMurray to new heights in 2010.
In order for him to do just that, McMurray has to work not on converting hard-luck second place finishes into victory lane; rather, he needs to work on being consistent week-in, week-out. “We run second one week and 30th the next,” he said Sunday. “Pocono is not a very good track for me. Next week will be about getting a solid finish out of it. If that means 10th or 15th, you need to finish there, not screw up, run 30th.”
That’s still a tough task ahead, but it’s a lot easier to find consistency when you’re running inside the top five every other week. So, at the halfway point to the cutoff, post-Richmond and race 26, the signs are positive for Jamie Mac. While he is unlikely to eclipse his nine top five, 23 top 10 season in 2004, he might go one better and make his first ever Chase. And if he does, it will be one of the feel good stories of NASCAR in 2010.
One final point: What a weekend of motorsports – undoubtedly, one of the best days in the racing calendar with a Formula 1 Grand Prix (Turkey), the Indy 500 and the Coke 600 all running in convenient chronological format last Sunday. If you’ve read this far, chances are you’re more than well aware of events in the latter two races. So, if I may I’ll touch on the F1 race where the young German Sebastian Vettel took out teammate Mark Webber, who was leading the race with 41 of 58 laps complete, in an ill-advised move that can best be described as “Kyle Busch-ian.” The resulting collision allowed the British pair of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button to drive to a second 1-2 finish in seven races for the powerhouse Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team in 2010, leaving Red Bull in third and with an ugly DNF. Watching Webber – denied an almost certain third straight Grand Prix victory, what would have been just his fifth win in 145 starts – desperately try not to throw his teammate under the bus at the post-race press conference was almost as comedic as watching the incident unfold on track.