Jamie McMurray crossed one of those racing milestones last season that are interesting when they occur, but are otherwise just a footnote in a driver’s career. The achievement for McMurray was Cup Series start No. 500 at Chicagoland Speedway in September.
When McMurray was asked about it several weeks later, he didn’t exactly attach a lot of significance to the feat.
“When I look at that, I remember first coming along and there were guys that made 500 starts and thinking about how long they’d been around,” McMurray said. “For me, and I think you hear people say this all the time, it just went by really quick. It doesn’t seem like I’ve been around that long. But I do tend to find myself telling a lot of stories of ‘back when.’”
He’s certainly earned the right to tell those tales through experience. Only 37 drivers in the history of NASCAR’s top division have ever started more races than McMurray’s 510. But instead of longevity, McMurray — who turned 40 last year — is more eager to talk about earning a second straight entry to NASCAR’s postseason Chase for the Cup — and how he feels like it was largely just a modest achievement.
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“As thrilling as it is to get to be part of the Chase and as much work as it is to get in, winning is more important than making the Chase,” McMurray says. “I would take winning three races over making the Chase any year. The Chase is really important, but we come every weekend to win, and that’s still more important than anything to me.”
McMurray, of course, didn’t get a win last season, and now he’s now gone three full seasons without one. McMurray’s last victory was in 2013 at Talladega Superspeedway, and he’s made 221 starts since his last non-restrictor plate victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2010. The Charlotte win came in a year in which McMurray scored major victories in the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.
Coincidentally, he wasn’t part of the postseason that year.
So if winning is top of mind for McMurray, what will it take for his No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet to break that drought and head to Victory Lane in 2017?
“I wish I had a list of exactly what we need to do,” McMurray says. “And if we did, that’s what we would do.”
It won’t be that easy. But McMurray does have some positive signals on his side. The Joplin, Mo., native is a believer that today’s NASCAR is more about the strength of a team than its drivers.
“A lot of that comes because we’re so much more advanced than we used to be,” McMurray says. “We don’t build cars the way that we think they should be built; we build cars the way we know they should be built based on facts. … Things have just come so far that you’re able to duplicate what you know is right and not do what’s wrong.”
With teammate Kyle Larson securing his 2016 Chase bid by winning at Michigan International Speedway last summer, McMurray’s reasoning is cause for optimism. The Ganassi entries also have earned a bit more prestige by default, thanks to Stewart-Haas Racing’s departure for Ford. Only Hendrick Motorsports is ahead of Chip Ganassi Racing on the competitive totem pole among Chevrolet teams, though McMurray isn’t convinced it will mean extra speed. He reasons it’d be quite a surprise to discover a manufacturer was holding anything back.
But there is stability in the team, and McMurray is very pleased to start a third year with crew chief Matt McCall, a team leader whom McMurray says does a great job calling races and setting an example for how to operate. It’s reasonable to think McMurray will roll to the postseason again — this time advancing to the title fight the way he wants to: with a win.