After victories in three of the biggest races of the year in 2010, including NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, people wondered what Jamie McMurray could possibly do for an encore.
They’re still waiting. Act II turned into Act Fail for Earnhardt Ganassi’s No. 1 success story. McMurray suffered through the worst season of his nine-year Sprint Cup career in 2011, barely squeaking out more top 10s (four) than he had 2010 wins, racking up five DNFs and posting lead-lap finishes in fewer than half of his 36 starts. A 27th-place finish in the standings was his worst since coming into the series full-time in 2003.
“It was really frustrating to struggle so much,” McMurray says. “We had six or eight flat tires last year. Ran out of gas at Loudon. It just seems like if it could go wrong, it did.”
But bad luck wasn’t the only culprit. While McMurray did suffer three engine failures, he simply wasn’t competitive in the majority of the other races. Scoring his final top-10 finish in Bristol at the end of August, he capped off the remaining dozen races with only three top-15 results — not exactly a momentum-builder for 2012.
Such an ugly downturn in speed, combined with the underachievement of teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, proved costly for many of EGR’s top brass. Competition director Steve Hmiel, team manager Tony Glover and lead engineer Ed Nathmann, some of the most respected and accomplished names in the sport, lost their jobs. Replacing them will be new technical director John Probst, jumping from now-defunct Red Bull Racing; before working with Toyotas, he was a long-time Ford engineer. Industry veteran Max Jones, who served in executive roles at Richard Petty Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing, is also on board this year, filling the team manager role. The Earnhardt-Childress engine room will also get a retuning, as horsepower numbers fell back to the pack after peaking as the sport’s most powerful program in 2010.
But while housecleaning raged behind the scenes, owner Chip Ganassi’s faith in McMurray, rewarded during Year 1 of that reunion in 2010, means the core of the No. 1 Chevy team was given a break. Crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion, whom the driver has raved about, retains his current position, which he’s held since the days of Martin Truex Jr.
Sponsorship support also continues from Bass Pro Shops and McDonald’s, as well as new backers LiftMaster, Banana Boat and Belkins. McMurray, soft-spoken and charitable, is the perfect pitchman, spending extra time and money in his hometown of Joplin, Mo., last year after tornados caused heartbreaking destruction.
But even the good guys can let frustration get the best of them. After being spun out by Brian Vickers at Martinsville last fall, McMurray tried to retaliate, badly, and wound up spinning his own car into the outside wall and losing his battery. High comedy, the incident made SportsCenter for days and reduced the former Daytona 500 winner to nothing more than a funny YouTube clip.
That, for all intents and purposes, should be rock bottom for the No. 1 car. There’s no place to go but up for a driver who, one year after proving the doubters wrong, has them on his case all over again. Expect some improvement this year, but a 2010 repeat? A 14-position gain is likely too much to ask.
What the Competition is Saying
Jamie McMurray’s stellar 2010 season saw him win some of the biggest races in the sport, garner media attention and return to the spotlight. The 2011 season was the polar opposite, however. McMurray made little noise and could not muster any better than 27th in the standings. Not in contention, McMurray was once again lost in the crowd as a mid-pack driver.
“Who?” an insider sarcastically asks. “Did he even race last year?” Another believes there is still hope that McMurray can step up to his 2010 season: “He’s shown at times that he can really drive a racecar. I think he’s still got the potential to win more races and challenge for the Chase as long as Chip’s equipment is right. And last year it was wrong.”
Top 5s: 2
Top 10s: 4
Laps Led: 106
Laps Completed: 9,584
Lead Lap Finishes: 17
Bonus Points: 11
Races Led: 11
Average Start: 17.8
Average Finish: 22.2
After First 26 Races: 25th
Final Points Standing: 27th
Driver Rating: 71.0 (26th)