Matt McCall, crew chief of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing team hasn’t won a slew of races this season with Jamie McMurray behind the wheel.
As a matter of fact, he hasn’t won any. And no, McMurray, who is eighth in the Monster Energy Cup Series standings, isn't a lock to move on to the Round of 8.
But McCall, who was the team engineer for the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevy when Ryan Newman lost the title by a half-second to Kevin Harvick in 2014, believes that, if McMurray can transfer to the final four, he has a shot at the championship.
With NASCAR’s new format — where bonus points for race and stage wins provide playoff drivers with an extra cushion — the challenge of reaching the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway has become increasingly tough. Martin Truex Jr. and the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team has collected 64 playoff points since the season started. Truex holds a 34-point lead over McMurray’s Ganassi Racing teammate Kyle Larson.
McMurray, on the other hand, has three playoff points, the result of an eighth-place finish in the final regular-season standings. In other words, the driver of the No. 1 Chevy is more than a full race behind Truex.
Round of 8 still possible
Still, McCall doesn’t believe reaching the next round is out of the question.
“I think this round is certainly feasible, especially if we can put together a win at Talladega or Kansas,” McCall said. “After that, it will be a lot tighter at Homestead, just knowing the points for the top three of them. I think there will be one spot for points for the fourth one.
“But I think the struggle is going to be if one driver in the final eight — that’s not the 78 (Truex), the 42 (Larson) or the 18 (Kyle Busch) — wins a race. Then it will be tough to out-point the top three guys there.”
McCall, 36, grew up in Denver, N.C. After winning a championship in the World Karting Association Dirt Series, he tried a limited run as a driver in the Xfinity, truck and ARCA Series. Along the way, McCall collected a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.
CGR's rapid improvement
After nearly winning the title with Newman, McCall accepted an opportunity to be a crew chief for McMurray in 2015. For the last three seasons, the No. 1 Ganassi team has qualified for the playoffs. This year, McMurray has already surpassed his 13th-place standing the last two seasons and has earned more top-10 finishes (16th) than in either year. McCall believes from a consistency standpoint, this is the team’s best year yet.
“Our company as a whole, and our cars this year, have more speed,” McCall said. “Last off-season, we put together the resources we thought would help us the most. It helps, too, that all of our race teams and engineering are working well together to help propel us to the next level. It’s helped all of us to have our best season and pushed each of the race teams to be better.”
Entering the season under the new points structure, where bonus points are awarded for stage and race wins and drivers picked up additional points for finishing in the top 10 in each stage, McCall didn’t change his overall strategy. He still believed it was best to concentrate on race wins.
“To me, the biggest thing was wins,” McCall said. “It’s not like you get to dictate on a given weekend — unless you’re the 78 — that we’re going to win this stage and be all right. We haven’t had that ability. I don't think many teams do.
“Every once in a while you might take a chance to get stage points here or there, but as far as winning stages, it’s not like they’re handing them out. It seems like they just work themselves out with the way the field has been running. Throughout the year the strategy has changed drastically after a couple of times that you get bit for staying out to get a couple of stage points or a stage win for not pitting, then you restart 25th or worst and chances of winning the race are a lot slimmer then.”
Talladega an opportunity
While some drivers might experience trepidation entering Talladega Superspeedway — the second race in the Round of 12 — McMurray is one of the best restrictor-plate racers on the circuit. Not only has McMurray won both the 500 and the July race at Daytona International Speedway, he also has two wins at Talladega — both in the fall race. Although McMurray’s most recent win came in the 2013 fall Talladega romp, he finished second in the spring and fourth in the same race last year.
McMurray finished fifth at Charlotte Motor Speedway last weekend — his first top-five finish since Michigan in June. McCall credits solid pit stops and execution for the team’s solid effort.
“I think Jamie and our cars have been competitive enough to run top five, it’s just circumstances every single week have kept us from reaching that goal,” McCall said. “The list is pretty scary of all the stuff that has happened to us that we’ve had to overcome throughout the last 15 weeks, technically.
“Last week, was actually the first race we’ve had that something didn’t go wrong as far as a miscue on pit road or one bad adjustment or a gear cooler going out. It’s not been one thing that would necessarily take us out of a race, but it’s been enough to lose track position and takes those chances at top fives away from you.
“Obviously, if you can run in the top five, the odds of winning raise drastically especially on a late race restart.”
If McMurray can carry that momentum into Talladega and pick up the win or at least pick up a strong finish, the Round of 8 could easily be within the team’s grasp.