For the first 11 years of the chase era, Jamie McMurray was the bridesmaid. McMurray simply could not make the chase. No matter how many openings there were. No matter how often he won or didn’t win. Jamie Mac was always on the outside looking in. He missed the chase in almost every conceivable fashion. It seemed that he was destined to never get a shot at a NASCAR title.
Now, that’s not to say McMurray wasn’t ever competitive. McMurray has only seven wins in his 510 starts in the top level of NASCAR. But his trophy case has many of the prizes that some drivers never attain despite seemingly more successful careers. He has claimed both premier events at Daytona, pairing a 2007 win in July with his 2010 Daytona 500 triumph. He has a Brickyard 400 trophy, Rookie of the Year honors, and even cashed a million dollar check for winning the 2014 All Star Race. McMurray finally broke his chase drought in 2015 but it was short lived. However, he was eliminated after the first round, negating the excitement his team experienced by earning a chase berth.
McMurray came into 2016 looking to build on that success. The driver of car number one hadn’t finished in position number one since that 2014 All Star Race but there was plenty of optimism. The team looked to build on their momentum after posting top 15 finishes in seven of the final nine races in 2015. Crew chief Matt McCall was back for his second season with McMurray. It appeared the pieces were in place to contend for more coveted trophies.
However, the season didn’t start out quite as well as McMurray and company anticipated. It wasn’t due to any catastrophic incidents. McMurray simply wasn’t running well. He was mired in the middle of the field week after week. He posted eight finishes between 13th and 23rd in the first nine events of the year. Only a 10th place run at Auto Club Speedway was worth writing home about. Somehow even that was disappointing, given the expectations that McMurray and his Chip Ganassi Racing team had for 2016.
At last, the 10th race of the year at Talladega brought a glimmer of hope to the dismal season. McMurray scored a 4th place finish, his first top 5 run since the previous year at Martinsville. This strong finish wasn’t much of a surprise, given his record at restrictor plate tracks like Talladega. McMurray has 2 wins on the 2.66 mile Alabama tri-oval and came close to winning a few others. Yet, unfortunately, this didn’t provide the change in fortune that the team hoped it would. Another seven race stretch ensued with only one finish better than 17th. The early summer swoon was punctuated by a crash at Daytona in July, the first Did Not Finish (DNF) of 2016.
After the misery of Daytona was behind them, the second half of the season got underway at Kentucky Speedway. Suddenly, it seemed McMurray and team had found new life. A 7th place finish at Kentucky began a streak of finishes that made it appear as though they were ready to make a run at the chase again. One week later, McMurray finished 6th at New Hampshire. Then three consecutive 8th place runs at Watkins Glen, Bristol, and Michigan had the Ganassi team feeling as confident as ever. With his 7th place finish at Richmond, McMurray was in the chase for the second year in a row.
McMurray began the chase with solid showings at Chicagoland and New Hampshire. He came to Dover prior to the initial cutoff in 13th position. However, he was within striking distance of a top 12 opening needed to advance. After qualifying 13th, it seemed even more possible to make it to round two. McMurray only needed to avoid trouble and get another good finish.
McMurray rebounded the next week at Charlotte to score a 10th. But the team just couldn’t seem to build any momentum. Another disastrous day at Kansas saw them 37th at race’s end. The crew was even disappointed at Talladega, as the Cessna/ Beechcraft car ended up 19th at one of the team’s best tracks.
However, things finally took an upswing at Martinsville Speedway. McMurray came home in 8th, backing up his runner-up finish from the previous year. A couple more top 20s followed in the subsequent weeks. At last, McMurray had the kind of race he and his team knew they were capable of in the finale at Homestead. The McDonald’s car steered clear of the bad luck that plagued the driver and crew all year en route to a 5th place finish.
It’s true that 2016 was a disappointment in many ways for McMurray. He was unable to advance past the initial round of the chase. He failed to return to victory lane and didn’t lead a lap all year for the first time.
However, there are positives to take away. The team often ran better than their finishes indicated. McMurray was strong on a wide variety of tracks. Chip Ganassi Racing is improving as an organization, with McMurray’s teammate Kyle Larson picking up his first career win. The outlook is good for McMurray and company to put together a third straight chase season. Once again, the goal will be to not only make the Chase. The team looks to be relevant beyond round one, which is certainly attainable.
Few in the garage would be surprised if Big Mac can pull off another big win.