Jamie McMurray has come up empty-handed in his bid for a spot inside the Chase eleven consecutive years ... Until now.
Welcome to the post-season, Jamie McMurray.
Although the driver of the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevy did not officially clinch a Chase for the Sprint Cup spot at Darlington Raceway on Sunday, his first entry in the playoffs will be guaranteed once McMurray takes the green flag at Richmond on Saturday night.
But what took you so long, Jamie Mac?
Arriving on the NASCAR scene
It doesn’t seem that long ago that the then-26-year-old racer from Joplin, Mo. got the call from Chip Ganassi to sub for the sidelined Sterling Marlin. The No. 40 Coors Light team had enjoyed a remarkable season in 2002. Marlin took the points lead in the second race of the year at Rockingham Speedway and held it for 25 races. He took a vicious hit at Richmond and again three weeks later at Kansas, where Marlin cracked a vertebra in his neck. McMurray came to the team’s rescue as a substitute for the sidelined Marlin.
I think he has always had more focus and drive than any driver I have ever worked with
Former McMurray crew chief, Donnie Wingo
In just his second Sprint Cup start, McMurray won at Charlotte Motor Speedway. No other Cup driver has won as early in his career since. The following season, McMurray was named the 2003 Rookie-of-the-Year. He earned his first career pole (Homestead) and posted five top fives,13 top 10 finishes and finished 13th in the series standings.
Needing a little luck
When the Chase for the Cup program debuted in 2004, the sophomore sensation’s progress was hampered by three blown engines, an oil pump failure and a rules infraction at Bristol, where NASCAR docked the team 25 points -- the same amount of points that McMurray trailed 10th-place Mark Martin entering Richmond. Jeremy Mayfield, who was 14th in the standings with a 55-point deficit, won the 2004 Chevy Rock and Roll 400 and led the most laps to transfer into the ninth Chase spot, bumping Ryan Newman to 10th-place and knocking McMurray out of contention.
He missed the playoff cutoff by 15 points — and one position.
But perhaps it was an omen. Before this year, McMurray would never again come as close to an appearance in the post-season as he would in 2004.
I have been the guy on the bubble going to Richmond and not come out on top so I’m glad to know that I won’t experience that again this weekend
Donnie Wingo, McMurray’s crew chief at the time, attributed the failures to “bad luck and unfortunate circumstances."
“I think he has always had more focus and drive than any driver I have ever worked with,” Wingo told Motorsport.com. “He’s one of the good guys. I couldn’t be happier for him.”
Despite a change in scenery — when McMurray moved to Roush Fenway Racing in 2006 — he never developed the necessary consistency to battle for the title, even when NASCAR raised the Chase field to 12 drivers in 2007. After four seasons at Roush, where he picked up a couple of wins but gained a lot more respect from his peers, he returned home to Ganassi and enjoyed the best year of his career.
Winning wasn't enough
Even after winning NASCAR’s two majors — the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 — along with a second victory in the fall Charlotte race, crashes kept McMurray from transferring to the 2010 Chase. In 2011, the sanctioning body added a new twist to the Chase rules by adding “wild card” qualifiers — drivers outside of the top 10 in points with the most wins. McMurray won in 2013 — but at Talladega in the Chase.
Last year, NASCAR modified eligibility once again by opening the Chase field up to 16. McMurray was 14th in the point standings, but five drivers with wins vaulted over him. McMurray scored the 11th most points for the season but had to settle for 18th in the standings.
Third time's the charm?
This season, with his third crew chief (Matt McCall) in as many seasons, McMurray has remained in the top 10 for 17 races and ranked as high as sixth after Daytona in July. On Saturday night after the Federated Auto Parts 400, the 39-year-old driver will join the 2015 Chase for the Sprint Cup class on stage at Richmond International Raceway.
“Knowing that we will just have to start the race to be locked into the Chase is a great feeling,” McMurray said. “I have been the guy on the bubble going to Richmond and not come out on top so I’m glad to know that I won’t experience that again this weekend.”
McMurray is relieved that he and the team “can go to Richmond and race and have fun and just know that there are no consequences.”
McMurray led four laps at Richmond before finishing fourth in April, tying his best result at the track. In his last four starts, McMurray has finished fourth three times on the 0.75-mile track.
“Richmond is a track where we really have to fight like crazy for the first 10 laps or so after a restart,” McMurray said. "But once you get single file you can pass there. We had a really good car there in the Spring and I got sent to the back for some reason and was able to drive right back up to the lead.
“I think the tire that we are taking there this time will allow the groove to widen out, similar to what we had last year. Richmond is a great track for racing. I don't know of anyone that doesn't like racing there, it's really fun.”