It would have been easy for Jamie McMurray to exit last season frustrated. Despite having a strong car early in many races, his No. 1 Chevrolet rarely finished where he felt it could. The team’s only winning outing came in the exhibition, non-points All-Star Race in May.
“When I look at some of the guys that made the Chase, I think we outran them in 95 percent of the races,” McMurray says. “They were able to be there at the end, whether it was good pit strategy or a (strong) restart. Whatever they did, they were just able to get a better finish.”
McMurray scored the 10th-best mid-race running position in the series (13.8). Leading a career-high 368 laps, he wound up 18th in the final standings but would have been 11th without the Chase, after a late-season surge that came far too late to make the playoff. That success has McMurray optimistic heading into 2015.
“I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen the ups and downs,” McMurray says. “As far as our success last year, everything is pretty ‘scienced’ out. There’s a reason why we’ve done this, or a reason why we’ve not done that. It’s not just kind of a shoot-from-the-hip and see what happens.”
That knowledge and speed have McMurray, the Daytona 500 winner in 2010, confident that the No. 1 team can take the next step. Of the drivers who have run every season since the Chase’s inception in 2004, he remains the only full-timer not to make a single postseason field. “Speed-wise, I feel like we’re more than capable,” McMurray says. “It will just be about being a little more consistent.”
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To do that, McMurray needs to learn how to close. It’s not just bad luck, like he had at the restrictor plate tracks in 2014. He scored zero top-10s at the plate races — his strongest tracks — often caught up in someone else’s mess. Many of his problems came late in events, like a Bristol race he dominated before a bad handling adjustment had him falling to eighth. Pit problems, flat tires, poor restarts — you name it, McMurray or his team knew how to foul it up in the final 100 laps. He ranked a disappointing 55th out of 73 drivers in NASCAR’s list of “Closers,” positions gained or lost in the last 10 percent of each race.
One aspect that won’t be the same for McMurray this season is the crew chief role. Keith Rodden returned to Hendrick Motorsports this year after just a single season on the job, jumping at the chance to return to HMS and run point for Kasey Kahne. (It’s notable that HMS now gives CGR engine support and information that have made them a de facto satellite operation.) McMurray’s team will now be led by Matt McCall, also a first-time crew chief who worked as lead engineer on Ryan Newman’s No. 31 last season.
“When things are going well at the end of the year, you don’t want it to end,” McMurray says. “You just never know how it’s going to start back off in February. But I probably feel better going into (this season) than I have in a while.”
No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet
Primary Sponsors: McDonald’s, Cessna
Owner: Chip Ganassi
Crew Chief: Matt McCall
Year With Current Team: 6th
Under Contract Through: 2015
Best Points Finish: 11th (2004)
Hometown: Joplin, Mo.
Born: June 3, 1976
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.