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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald’s Chevrolet
Team: Earnhardt Ganassi Racing
Owner: Chip Ganassi/Teresa Earnhardt
Crew Chief: Kevin “Bono” Manion
Years with current team: 2
Under contract through: 2012+
Best points finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976
During his last two years at Roush Fenway Racing, Jamie McMurray was labeled little more than a lame duck, his career swimming straight into a lake of near irrelevance. However, in his first year back with Chip Ganassi, the Missouri native flourished, claiming victories in two of NASCAR’s biggest races: the season-opening Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.
The owner’s gamble to re-hire McMurray and give him a second chance after the duo had parted ways following the 2005 season paid off with a year that landed both men in the history books. Ganassi became the lone team owner to win those races and the Indianapolis 500 in the same year (and later the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona), while McMurray is only the third driver to earn the two biggest NASCAR trophies. And, somewhat overlooked but notable nonetheless, McMurray chipped in runner-up showings at Talladega, in the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600 and a third in the Bristol Night Race, proving he and the team were able to step up on the sport’s biggest stages.
“If you were to ask me at the beginning of the season: ‘You could make the Chase or you could win these two races,’ I would have chosen these two,” McMurray said last August, a telling indictment on his lack of consistency. Each victory — including a third triumph at Charlotte in the fall — was followed up with a run outside the top 10, a troubling roller coaster defining a points season that ended with his No. 1 ride outside of the Chase in 14th.
Perhaps it was that sort of up and down result that had rumors swirling that Ganassi was considering a switch from Chevy to Ford. Clearly, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing isn’t at the top of the GM food chain; that distinction belongs to teams like Hendrick, Stewart-Haas and Richard Childress Racing. But speculation was put to bed by the end of last season when the announcement was made that ECR was staying with the bowtie boys, an IndyCar partnership in 2012 helping sweeten the deal in order to keep this program in the fold.
Now, the key is to minimize bad days, with McMurray hoping to build on an 18-race streak without a DNF as a sign the organization is over some mechanical and handling miscalculations week-to-week. By Daytona, this team will have achieved much-needed, long-term stability elsewhere. McMurray, as well as sponsors Bass Pro Shops, McDonald’s and others, shored up deals that will keep them with EGR long term. Crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion will be back on the pit box calling the shots, the second half of an extrovert/introvert duo that has the most surprising chemistry on and off the track of any driver/crew chief set. That familiarity will only pay dividends, especially now that McMurray is no longer having to wait for the other shoe to drop like he did at Roush Fenway. The only worry is to keep the adrenaline up this spring; it’s always tricky to avoid a short-term letdown when everyone goes from a possible pink slip to long-term job security.
The decision to stay with Chevy may or may not pan out. EGR may be a bigger fish in the IndyCar pond but remains a relatively small fish in the stock car ranks as a two-car team. There is also the at-times tumultuous relationship with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, who certainly didn’t have the type of season he was looking forward to after making the Chase the year before. The former top-level Formula One driver struggled to work together with his overachieving teammate at times last season, but over the long run, they have to find a way to make an awkward marriage work.
So expect McMurray and Co. to be good for another win or two this year, but the trendy pick to make the Chase remains a tricky proposition. There are too many multi-car machines double the size — Gibbs, Hendrick and Childress to name a few — with drivers willing to share information and success all the way into the 10-race playoff.
However, considering the big, flashy wins this team thrives on, will another couple of clutch performances in Victory Lane leave them thinking 2011 was a bad year?
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
McMurray clearly has paid his dues and won the respect of most in the garage area. “What a fantastic season,” says one rival crew chief. “McMurray won all the big races. Yeah, sure, he lacks consistency, but that’s still a new program. Jamie went over there and made a huge improvement in that car.”
Another crew chief says, “If you’re not going to make the Chase, that’s certainly the way to do it. He’s earning the big paychecks in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard.”
A third crew chief says, “I think hard times were good for Jamie. When he went through the lean years, I think he learned to appreciate how important it was to be good to those around you. Ever notice how happy his former teammates at Roush (Fenway) are when he wins? That says a lot for him.”
Looking at Checkers: He’s becoming a pied piper of sorts at Daytona and Talladega.
Pretty Solid Pick: Hard to ignore last season’s first- and second-place runs at Charlotte.
Good Sleeper Pick: Third in last year’s Bristol Night Race?! Who saw that coming?
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Atlanta, Pocono and Richmond — totally different tracks that share the same anti-McMurray trait.
Insider Tip: Last year was great, but don’t expect another three-win gem out of this bunch — although another plate win is certainly a possibility.
Top 5s: 9
Top 10s: 12
Laps Led: 346
Laps Completed: 10,603
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 75
Races Led: 15
Average Start: 13.4
Average Finish: 16.4
After First 26 Races: 14th
Final Points Standing: 14th
Driver Rating: 86.5 (13th)