Bruce Martin
Tuesday June 21st, 2011

NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- In 2010 he won NASCAR's two biggest races -- the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. He added a third victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway to cap a successful year. So what happened to Jamie McMurray?

This season the Chip Ganassi driver is stuck at 28th in points with no wins, no top-5s and just two top-10 finishes in 15 starts. His outstanding 2010 season encouraged NASCAR officials to add two wild-card spots to the Chase, allowing two drivers in positions 11-20 to get in based on most wins.

Some called it the "Jamie McMurray Rule," but it's not going to benefit him in 2011 unless he has a dramatic turnaround to his season. So what are the reasons for McMurray's disappearance from the NASCAR spotlight?

That's a question that baffles the driver, although he offered up a few reasons.

"I don't know for sure but I think some of it has to do with the new nose and some of it has to do with the new tires," McMurray said lat week, referring to the splitter disappearing from the front of the car and being replaced with a more traditional nose.

"I know everyone else is in the same situation, but two weeks ago at Pocono everyone was on the same tire from last year and we ran a lot better, more comparable to what we ran last year," McMurray continued. "If we knew we certainly would fix it. We are just not unloading near as close as last year. You would think being together for another year you would unload closer because you have some history together, but we have really struggled this year."

When McMurray won the 2010 Daytona 500 it gave him momentum that he was able to carry through the early part of the season. Typically results from the Daytona 500 only translate to the two restrictor plate tracks (Daytona and Talladega) and is not an indicator of success at the 1.5-mile ovals that dominate the NASCAR schedule.

That certainly held true for McMurray. He had just one top-10 finish in the seven races that followed, but rebounded with a second-place finish at Talladega. It was easy to surmise that McMurray would be a threat only on the "big tracks." He dispelled that notion with a second-place finish at Darlington Raceway and another second-place in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

A fifth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway preceded his big victory in the Brickyard 400.

Despite McMurray's ability to win the big races it wasn't enough to get him into the Chase. So he decided to crash the party, winning the October BankofAmerica 500 at Charlotte.

It was expected McMurray would be a contender for the top 10 in 2011, but through the first 15 races this season the driver from Joplin, Mo., has struggled. He finished 18th in the Daytona 500 and followed that with a string of 21st or worse finishes. He won the pole at Martinsville and finished seventh before returning to mediocrity with a 22nd at Texas, 21st at Talladega and 18th at Richmond.

When he bounced back to finish ninth at Darlington he could have used that to spark a resurgence, but in the five races since, he has finished 20th at Dover, 37th at Charlotte, 29th at Kansas, 33rd at Pocono and 19th last Sunday at Michigan.

"Our cars were just faster last year," McMurray said. "Honestly, this year we've had a few good cars and unfortunately each time we've had a good car the engine has blown up. We had a good car at Pocono and the transmission blew up. For us it has been one of those years when you finally feel like there is some hope and things are going to go your way and then something catastrophic happens. What do you do?

"I won't say that we've had bad luck, but we certainly haven't had any good luck."

McMurray believes the restrictor-plate cars are far different than before with the higher spoiler and the new nose. It no longer depends on how good of a drafter a driver is; it's all about finding a partner. He had that partner at both Daytona and Talladega with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya. McMurray's engine blew up at Daytona and Montoya crashed at Talladega, so neither was able to find another partner for success in either of those high-speed contests.

"When you go to those places you pick a partner early on in the race and if your partner breaks or has a failure -- you're screwed," McMurray said. "The guys that work together with somebody else all day long are loyal to those guys and you can't blame them a bit."

There is some cause for optimism for McMurray, however. If he can win two or more races and dig his way back to 20th in points he could probably sneak into the Chase as one of the wild-cards. At the moment he is 50 points out of 20th position with 11 races before the cut-off.

"I don't think getting in the top 20 is going to be that big of a deal because if you are well enough to win two races you will run well enough to be in the top 20," McMurray said. "Getting into the top 20 shouldn't be a goal, but we have to get our cars where we are unloading closer. Racing is all about finding the small things that make a difference, and we have not hit on those two or three small things that we can depend on each weekend."

McMurray could challenge for a top finish when the series returns to Daytona for the Coke Zero 400 on July 2. An even bigger race comes when NASCAR heads to the Brickyard 400 on July 31.

"I'm hoping by the time we get back to Indianapolis we have developed a setup that has more speed in it and you feel comfortable going there with it," McMurray said, referring to the Brickyard 400. "That is such a big race and everybody builds a brand new car to go there. It's where the engine shop has their best engines. Everybody wants to run well there and I'm hoping we hit on something sometime before Indianapolis that we feel confident taking there."

McMurray believes his setups worked much better on last year's Goodyear tires but don't run well on the newer compounds being used this season. He was encouraged at Bristol when his car was the fastest in "Happy Hour," but that was a race where NASCAR changed tires halfway through the first day at the track because of bad tire wear. That meant a shipment of last year's tires were brought to Bristol and McMurray's car came to life before his season slipped back into a coma.

"We just haven't hit on it," McMurray said. "At the end of last year it seemed like we could sit on the pole every fourth race. Every week we had a fast car and we thought it would carry into this year but man, it can change so fast.

"It's really easy to lose, but really tough to get back. When you win those big races like the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, at the time, it's not as big as it is now when you look back at how hard it is to win again. It makes you appreciate what you really had in the past."

It was that thinking that led McMurray back to Ganassi's racing operation at the end of the 2009 season. McMurray began his Cup career with Ganassi in 2002 and drove to victory in just his second Cup start.

He stayed with Ganassi through the 2005 season before leaving for Roush Fenway Racing when a spot opened up on the multi-car team with Kurt Busch's departure to Penske Racing. McMurray scored single victories for team owner Jack Roush in the 2007 and 2009 seasons.

But there was something that called McMurray back to the Cup team where it all started.

"It's a lot different environment than I had at Roush Fenway Racing," McMurray said. "They build the cars around me and around Juan here. At Roush they don't do that. They build a car and your team has to adapt to make that car and setups work. That doesn't work for everybody. That is why you see one car run really good and one not because what works for one doesn't work for everybody. You can build a car to suit each driver when you only have two drivers, but at Roush they have seven drivers [counting Nationwide]."

The No. 1 reason he returned to Ganassi's race team however was the great relationship he has with the team owner.

"For me, I don't have any intentions of ever leaving Chip again," McMurray admitted. "I've been down that road. To me, the biggest difference this time is we are really good friends. When I was here before, I was quite a bit younger and we weren't that good of friends. Now Chip and I have a completely different relationship. We talk about racing on the phone, but we also talk about family and life. We have a genuine friendship that is completely different from racing. That is why Chip has guys that stay around for a long time."

McMurray has the talent and the team to climb his way into the top 20, but the real question is will he be able to do it in time?

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