McMurrray earns first Chase berth

Seth Livingstone - NASCAR Wire Service Sunday, Sep 13 1422
Jamie McMurray has accomplished things in NASCAR that more-heralded drivers will never match.

He went to Victory Lane in just his second career Sprint Cup start – earlier than any other driver in his career. He was the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year in 2003. And in 2010, he joined Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jarrett as the only drivers to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season.

But until Saturday night, McMurray had never earned a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

McMurray crossed that off his bucket list by simply starting the Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond International Raceway, becoming the 12th driver to lock down one of the 16 coveted places in the Chase.

“I’m relieved,” McMurray said after his 13th-place finish. “I’ve been the guy on the outside, trying to fight my way in, and also been in this (battle) a couple times and been knocked out at Richmond. … It’s awesome. I’m thrilled to be a part of it.”

“For Jamie, I couldn’t be more pleased,” said team owner Chip Ganassi. “I don’t think there’s anyone in the Chase more deserving to be there. He’s worked so hard and tirelessly over the years and been under the limelight.”

Although hardly enjoying his finest season, making the 2015 Chase seems like a matter of justice served for McMurray. In that 2010 season, he and crew chief Kevin Manion won three times (adding a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway to those at Daytona and Indy) and posted nine top-five finishes, yet failed to qualify for a position in the Chase.

"It seems like when they took 10, we were 11th; when they took 12, we were 13th," Ganassi said.

But McMurray’s high-profile 2010 season for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, combined with his inability to compete for the sport’s championship, was something NASCAR took a hard look at when it decided to expand the Chase format by adding wild card spots.

A year ago, winless-driver Ryan Newman took full advantage of the expanded field to challenge for the Sprint Cup Series title at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Now, McMurray and his team at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates are in a similar boat.

Not only is McMurray winless entering the Chase, last night’s race marked his 56th consecutive race without a victory. He last went to victory lane in the Chase race at Talladega in 2013. The team has led just 14 laps this season, compared to 368 laps last season and 346 during his memorable 2010 campaign.

McMurray has struggled in the second half. His No. 1 Chevrolet has finished no better than 11th in the last 11 races. He’s managed only two top-five finishes all season, the last of which coming in the April 26 race at Richmond. As a result, he slid from sixth in the point standings after the July race at Daytona to 11th in the standings prior to the Federated Auto Parts 400.

All of this doesn't mean that Ganassi and McMurray are not without optimism for the Chase.

“I think we can give it a shot here. I think we can drill ourselves deep into it,” Ganassi said.

“We’ve had speed at times. Like Jimmie (Johnson) said (about the Hendricks Chevrolets), the components are there to win a race – all the same components of the guys who can (win). So, we just need to make a better mousetrap out of what we have to work with.”

Frustration with a consistent lack of speed looked like it might continue at Richmond, where the Cessna Chevrolet - so strong in the spring race - struggled in practice and qualified 31st. But McMurray, who was 28th in Friday’s final practice, had the No. 1 Chevrolet as high as fifth place just after the midway point of the race.

Any chance he might have had to mount a serious charge took a hit when he was penalized for speeding on entry to pit road on Lap 291, dropping him to the tail end of the lead lap, in 13th.

“We have some work to do,” said McMurray, who is working with Matt McCall, his third crew chief in as many seasons." (But) Matt has done a phenomenal job for being a rookie crew chief and I'm super-proud of him and the whole team."