Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the All-Star Race
Jamie McMurray has one of the strangest resumes you’ll find in NASCAR Sprint Cup competition. He’s a record 0-for-10 on Chase appearances — making the Missouri native the only driver who’s run full-time since 2004 to get shut out. Despite wheeling playoff-capable equipment with respected car owners Chip Ganassi and Jack Roush, he’s never finished better than 11th in series points, as inconsistency and mediocre performances have been his hallmark. Heck, McMurray has only posted wins in five of 13 career seasons while racing Cup.
But it’s the magnitude of those victories that keeps this driver, at age 37, hanging around NASCAR’s top level. After Saturday night’s $1 million All-Star Race triumph, McMurray has career wins in the sport’s Super Bowl (Daytona 500) and at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis along with the aforementioned All-Star event. Mark Martin never had that type of trophy case. Neither did Hall-of-Famer Rusty Wallace or current stars Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin and brothers Kurt and Kyle Busch.
It’s a big moment for McMurray, however unexpected (Vegas odds were 40-1), after 2014 was shaping up to be another make-or-break year. With rookie teammate Kyle Larson in Chase position, McMurray is far down the points list in 24th, and likely needing a victory to seize a bid. But now, the pressure is lessened; it’s hard to see Ganassi firing a driver who just earned a $1 million bonus in one of the sport’s most prestigious events. While not a Hall-of-Fame caliber talent, McMurray has learned the next best skill for any athlete at a major-league level:
He knows how to keep his job.
“Through the Gears” we go, post All-Star Race …
FIRST GEAR: Small steps toward success
It’s no secret NASCAR’s great exhibition — May’s All-Star Race — has suffered in recent years. The reason? Not much different than what stick-and-ball sports have been going through in terms of incentive. Split into multiple segments between 80 and 100 laps each year, too many were simply positioning themselves — and not truly racing — until the final 10 circuits. Add in a cookie-cutter intermediate track where aero is king (Charlotte) and a single-file, snoozer parade ruins a race designed for fans.
NASCAR’s weird system of tracking average finishes per segment to set the field for the final 10 laps has helped a bit. No one can do the math off the top of their head but at least drivers and crew chiefs get a bit more aggressive. And while wrecks don’t define a race, for the first time in recent years a few crashes made it seem, at least, that the field was giving 100 percent. A side-by-side battle between McMurray and Edwards in that final segment was icing on the cake this year, one of the better two-man fights for the win we’ve seen in this event over the past decade.
Does that mean the race was perfect? Far from it. Charlotte still lacks the physical rough-and-tumble atmosphere of, say, Bristol, that I think fans prefer for this type of event. But if NASCAR’s wish is to keep it near 90 percent of the major race shops, I think you saw a step in the right direction Saturday night. Neither McMurray nor Edwards gave an inch in those final 10 laps — until they absolutely had to. It was a refreshing change from a points race in which many would have recognized the consequences of crashing and backed off.
“I am like, ‘I don't really care if we wreck, I don't care what happens, I'm racing for a million dollars,’” said McMurray of those final moments. “I get to start on the front row and I'm going to make the very most out of the restart and everything that goes with this.”
For his part, Edwards thought his rival had a perfect ending, claiming “he’d do things differently” if given a second chance but that he couldn’t match McMurray’s toughness down the stretch. There was genuine disappointment in his voice, matching the excitement of the victor, which conveyed an important message fans haven’t received in recent years: these guys were going all-out for the win, consequences be damned.
SECOND GEAR: Fan vote follies
Perhaps the most interesting note on the All-Star Race, besides the finish itself, was who made it into the field through the fan vote. Danica Patrick, the sophomore GoDaddy girl, was expected to be a slam dunk based on popularity. Instead? A Dogecoin/Reddit campaign pushed Josh Wise in the underfunded Phil Parsons Racing No. 98 car into the field while NASCAR’s “First Lady” wound up watching from the infield.
“It is what it is,” Patrick said, trying to downplay the outcome. “It’s outside sources that are in control.”
Wise, as you might expect, was ecstatic considering his longshot circumstances. The Reddit community was not exactly a NASCAR hotbed before its sponsorship this season, so Wise’s presence in the race was a chance to drum up new fan interest. Sadly, more speed never materialized in the car and Wise was barely shown on television all night, placing 15th, the last car on the lead lap.
THIRD GEAR: Big names drumming up drama?
Jimmie Johnson, seeking his third straight victory in the All-Star Race, was never a factor Saturday night. Running sixth, a two-tire stop sent him skating back through the field mid-race and once again, he and Chad Knaus weren’t on the same page in terms of communication. At first, their “conflicts” seemed artificially inflated by us media types, but the last few weeks have seen a clear uptick in tension — at least on the radio in-race. The No. 48 team, whose teammates Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne appeared to have far better cars for Charlotte, looks like no better than a top-10 entrant for the 600, an event in which they’re typically a heavy favorite.
Perhaps the more surprising move was Kevin Harvick, whose team has been on a roll, calling out his crew post-race on television after a slow stop. Yes, dropping two positions out of the front row for the final segment was just enough to cost him the race (Harvick wound up third). It was a rough ending, costing him a potential $900,000, but you wonder if biting the hand that feeds you in public is a wise decision. All season, the No. 4 has been the car to beat and its speedy crew has played a large part in exceptional performance. So why not cut them a break for one bad moment? Those words speak to the continued volatility at Stewart-Haas Racing.
FOURTH GEAR: Tony’s troubles continue
Speaking of Stewart-Haas Racing, its co-owner was a decided non-factor in the All-Star Race. Finishing 12th, the No. 14 car never so much as sniffed the top 10 as Stewart was decidedly slower than teammates Harvick and Kurt Busch. The chemistry with new crew chief Chad Johnston, a transplant from Michael Waltrip Racing, doesn’t seem to be there yet. It’s a small surprise, considering Harvick’s success with former MWR man Rodney Childers and the degree to which all the head wrenches work together in that shop.
How much is that healing broken leg affecting Stewart? The answer should be “not at all,” because it’s not like he’s out there doing leg presses. But while Stewart is off to a slow start (all but a handful of career wins have come after June 1st) this one is especially glaring considering past injuries. An average finish of 19.7, if it holds, would be his worst while leading a career-low one race and 74 laps to date (Texas, April).
That said, the driver seems to be
Wrecks took a lot of innocent victims out of NASCAR’s All-Star Race before they had a real chance. Kyle Busch, while trying to avoid contact with brother Kurt, dove behind Clint Bowyer, made contact and went for a wild ride down the backstretch and into Turn 3. That incident collected Joey Logano, knocking him out while minimizing the impact of Bowyer, who entered the event through Friday night’s Sprint Showdown victory. … The other transfer spot from Friday’s “last chance” race went to AJ Allmendinger, who also found himself wrecked by the end of the night. But the most serious incident involved Jeff Gordon, whose No. 24 car shot up the track inexplicably and collected Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle in Turns 3 and 4. Gordon, who wound up 17th, was OK despite the hard hit. … Kasey Kahne was angry at NASCAR, claiming his crash was the result of sloppy track cleanup. According to the Hendrick Motorsports veteran, oil was the culprit after he and Ryan Newman hit the same patch of slick stuff exiting Turn 4. Both cars were wounded but NASCAR, for its part, has held firm that track cleanup was fully complete with no complaints from other teams before that incident.