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Jamie McMurray: 2018 NASCAR Season Driver Preview

Jamie McMurray

Jamie McMurray

Jamie McMurray has a winless streak that dates to his October 2013 victory at Talladega Superspeedway — for those counting at home, that’s 148 Cup Series races — and he just wrapped a season in which his lone teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing, Kyle Larson, scored four wins. And yet McMurray, now 15 full-time seasons into his Cup career, showed an impossible-to-miss positive vibe at the end of last season.

“I think, for me, it was probably my most consistent year in racing,” McMurray said, easily brushing away a question about the difference in performance between him and Larson. He followed with a brief analysis of his 2017 season, remarking that the “mile-and-a-half’s have been really good for us” while short tracks like Richmond International Raceway and Bristol Motor Speedway were on the other end of the spectrum. 

A deeper look at McMurray’s numbers support his feelings about last season and why he believes the 2018 season could be even better. While Larson garnered the Ganassi headlines, it was McMurray quietly delivering his best season-long average finish and most top 10s since his 2004 sophomore season. All this despite leading just 21 laps. 

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McMurray, 41, also had the benefit of knowing that nothing substantial was changing in his driving situation for the 2018 season. Team owner Chip Ganassi had confirmed last summer that McMurray and Larson would return in 2018, and McMurray’s crew chief, Matt McCall, is also slated to return for his fourth season guiding the No. 1. It was a level of clarity that last season escaped Matt Kenseth, the driver whom McMurray considers his best friend. Kenseth, 45, lost his Joe Gibbs Racing seat thanks to a lack of sponsorship, and he was unable to find a ride that suited him for this season.

McMurray laments that Kenseth wasn’t able to exit on his own terms. “I think that Matt is one of the greatest NASCAR drivers ever,” McMurray says. “The way you like to have your career go is to race until you decide you don’t want to race anymore. You hope that you’re wanted up to that point. I feel the worst just because I know that (Kenseth) would like to keep racing.”

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Time will inevitably create a similar dilemma for McMurray, but for this season it’s not on his mind. Instead, McMurray is looking to build on last year’s run. A key for that could come in the form of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that rolls out this season to replace the Chevrolet SS. McMurray, like other Chevrolet drivers, wasn’t able to test the car last season and has no full frame of reference about the performance change that the new car could bring. Still, he’s optimistic — especially after seeing how the new Toyota Camry became virtually unstoppable in the playoffs last season. “I feel like when people bring new cars out, they’re typically better than what they currently have,” McMurray says.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see some early struggles, however. Last season’s Toyota wasn’t dominant until the summer months as teams worked out the new design. If that happens on the new car, McMurray will be one of the most senior Chevrolet drivers helping to work out the kinks. With Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s retirement, only Jimmie Johnson and Ryan Newman have more experience in the Chevrolet camp.

That experience may loom large for McMurray in the form of reaching the playoffs again. NASCAR’s youth movement will result in a lot of inexperienced drivers in fast cars next season. And that could create an advantage for the consistent McMurray — even if breaking the winless streak doesn’t seem imminent.