Can McMurray finally crack Chase code in 2014?
Jamie McMurray probably feels pretty good about the possibilities that this year holds. Of course, McMurray, one of the sport’s most upbeat personalities, probably feels that way almost every year.
With a new crew chief, a new teammate and the momentum of the personal upswing that 2013 brought, McMurray has his sights set on finally making a Chase for the Sprint Cup appearance. He’s in a contract year, too, so continued improvement could pay dividends in the form of more regular paychecks in his future.
Not so fast.
We have been down this road before with the driver from Joplin, Mo., as recently as his unforgettable 2010 season. That year, McMurray scored his emotional Daytona 500 victory after holding off Dale Earnhardt Jr., accomplished what former teammate Juan Pablo Montoya never could with a notable Brickyard 400 win and otherwise earned a career-high nine top-5 finishes. He didn’t make the Chase that year — the all-too-familiar inconsistency of a Ganassi NASCAR operation caught up with him — but surely he had built his No. 1 team into ... something.
Two seasons, 72 races and two top-5 finishes later, McMurray remained stuck in rebuild mode. He was 27th in points after the 2011 season and 21st after 2012.
Why, then, should we see the moderate improvement from him last year any differently?
With McMurray, we have reached the point in his career where what you see is what you get. He’s a more than capable driver, but this year marks McMurray’s 11th full-time season in the Sprint Cup Series. In that period, he has seven wins and averages a little more than one top-10 finish per every four races. He has never finished higher than 11th in the season point standings, the only full-time, funded driver to run every year since 2004 and not make the Chase. Frankly, those simply aren’t top-tier numbers.
Positive thinkers will see McMurray’s 15th-place finish in last year’s point standings as reason to believe things can finally be different. At the very least, his Chip Ganassi Racing team is trying.
In a move that likely should have been made sooner — it bears repeating that McMurray had a grand total of two top-5 finishes in 2011 and ’12 — Kevin “Bono” Manion, McMurray’s crew chief since his arrival at CGR in 2010, was reassigned by the team following the 2013 season finale. Replacing him is Keith Rodden, formerly the lead engineer on Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports. Rodden had previously followed Kahne and longtime crew chief Kenny Francis through stops at Evernham Motorsports, Richard Petty Motorsports and Red Bull Racing.
The move is an interesting one for CGR overall as it comes just a season after the team made a company-wide change in its sourcing of Chevrolet engines. Out were the powerplants produced by sister company Earnhardt-Childress Racing; in were the V8s supplied by Hendrick Motorsports. They seemed to make a difference in the team’s performance, so don’t be shocked if CGR follows the sport’s trend among many other mid-level teams and forges what many term a “technical alliance” with Hendrick.
As for Rodden, it’s too early to tell if he’ll make a bona fide difference. What makes the hire fascinating is that he is a mechanical engineer by trade. Ganassi didn’t shop for a crew chief known for race strategy, instead maximizing the intricacies of car setup. That’s a smart move, as fast cars win races over wild, in-race gamblers these days (just ask Jimmie Johnson).
McMurray’s restrictor plate prowess may give his No. 1 team a large boost in the Daytona season opener, just as it did with his win at Talladega last fall. His four total victories at Daytona and Talladega since 2007 are the most of any current driver.
But as the series settles into the normal grind of racetracks, McMurray’s new working relationship with Rodden will likely take some time to find its legs. It’s a two-fold process that will require Rodden to learn what McMurray wants from the car while simultaneously learning how to handle the day-to-day management of a Sprint Cup team.
Throw in an inexperienced young hotshoe in Kyle Larson, who’s joining the team as Montoya’s replacement, and there will be plenty of new challenges to overcome in the entire CGR camp early this season.
Undoubtedly, McMurray will stay positive about it all. We’ll just have to wait and see if he can surprise us.
What the Competition is Saying
Anonymous quotes from crew chiefs, owners and media
“McMurray has proven he can win in the Cup Series,” says a garage-area rival. “And suddenly, he’s the elder statesman at Ganassi. His role as a mentor for Kyle Larson could very well invigorate his driving. McMurray continues to race go-karts, which keeps his passion for the sport alive, but he’s going to have to step up his game to keep from being outshined by Larson.”
“McMurray can be a Jekyll and Hyde driver,” a rival crew chief says. “Depending on the side of the bed he wakes up on can determine if you’re going to get the driver on the wheel or the driver just stroking. He’s working with a new crew chief in 2014, which means the dreaded chemistry-building year; and he’s driving Ganassi equipment ...”
One media member wonders if the likable Missourian is “too likable,” saying, “It’s impossible to not like McMurray — he’s a good guy, always smiling. But I wonder if that serves as a disadvantage. Sometimes you have to be mean, and McMurray doesn’t have that mean streak in him like Tony Stewart or the do-anything drive that we’ve seen out of Jeff Gordon.”
Looking at Checkers: Four of his seven career Cup wins have come on the plate tracks. Not quite Mikey-esque, but close.
Pretty Solid Pick: Martinsville must remind him of his karting days, as McMurray has seven top 10s in 14 starts there in the CoT/Gen-6 era. A note, though: He’s never parlayed any of those showings into a top-5 performance.
Good Sleeper Pick: McMurray has averaged an 11.25-place finish at Bristol since 2010. That’s about as sleeper-ish as we could find.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: He’s one of those drivers who has never adapted to the road courses. Jamie Mac has three career top 10s in 22 starts.
Insider Tip: An addendum to the plate track stat above: He’s feast or famine on the big tri-ovals. Also, wait a few weeks to see if CGR has some kinks worked out before using him in the fantasy lineup.
No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Sponsors: McDonald’s/Cessna/Banana Boat/LiftMaster
Owners: Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates
Crew Chief: Keith Rodden
Years with current team: 5
Under contract through: 2014
Best points finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.
For coverage of Speedweeks and the entire 2014 NASCAR season, follow Matt Taliaferro on Twitter: @MattTaliaferro