Jamie McMurray has been off the radar this season, three top-10s with a best of seventh at Bristol in 19 Sprint Cup races. That doesn't sound like much, but he's also 20th in the points -- mathematically in Chase contention if he could put together a couple of wins in the final seven races of the regular season.
The reality for McMurray is the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet hasn't been fast enough to contend for victories, but he has consistently run and finished in the upper middle class. He's been 11th through 15th eight times and 21st or better in 16 races.
"When I look back at this year, as a driver and a team, we've done a better job this season than last season getting the most out of the car," McMurray said. "When we've run 15th, we've had a 15th place car. We've been 11th to 15th in most of the races. We haven't been fast enough, but we've gotten the most out of the car.
"As a team, we've been really consistent. That's been my struggle in my career, one race I can win, the next week I'd run 30th. This year, we've done a really good job with the cards we've been dealt."
McMurray believes his performance approaches the Chase level, but he also knows making gains is a challenge.
"I don't think it's a lot from the guy who wins to the guy who runs 20th," he said. "It's such a small amount of speed. But we've got to get a little better.
"In 2010, our Earnhardt Childress engines were the best at every track out there," McMurray said. "I don't think we are now. It's not the only problem, but we're off a little bit in relation to the field. Our engine program needs to get a little bit stronger."
Earnhardt Ganassi Racing builds its chassis, too, and they need to take some steps forward, too. McMurray is hoping the package comes together for Sunday's race at Indianapolis, one of his best tracks in recent years.
McMurray won the Brickyard 400 in 2010 and was fourth last year.
"You don't run the same setup as you did last year because if you run the same thing, it seems like a struggle." McMurray said. "Everybody is developing new parts and pieces. We've developed a lot of stuff at the Pocono test and we ran well at Pocono. It's the closest track to Indy, just as flat and smoother, and I'm anxious to get there. It's been a good track in the past and we've got a good baseline setup."
McMurray was 10th at Pocono and led 14 laps, his most of the season. He was third at Indy in 2003, sixth in '08 and seventh in '04 -- a total of five top-10s in nine starts.
McMurray will be making his 350th career start in Cup at Indy and he's had some magical moments. He won at Charlotte in his second Cup start in 2002, just after being hired by team owner Chip Ganassi to move into NASCAR's premier series full time for 2003.
McMurray didn't win another race for Ganassi in three full seasons before leaving for Roush Fenway in 2007. Needing a job in 2010, McMurray returned to Ganassi and won the Daytona 500 and later the Brickyard 400.
Ganassi became the first owner to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year.
"It's unbelievable," McMurray said immediately after his win in the Brickyard. "Honestly, when Juan was leading and I was in second, I'm a big believer in fate and I thought this was how it was meant to be. I won Daytona, Dario [Franchitti] won the 500 and I thought Juan [Pablo Montoya] was going to win this one. I'm just shocked I won the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same year."
McMurray added a third victory in 2010 at Charlotte in October, the last of six in his Cup career. He finished 14th in points and didn't make the Chase. You can call NASCAR's changing of the Chase criteria prior to the 2011 season to add two wild-card spots the "Jamie McMurray Rule." His three wins including the two biggest races of the year undoubtedly influenced NASCAR.
"Indy is one of the two biggest races of the year and I still cherish winning it," McMurray said. "I watch all the races from the previous year leading up to the next race to see the trends of the track and when you see all the people in Victory Lane at Indy and the celebration, it brings back great memories. I hope to get back to that level soon.
"I really like golf and I watched the British Open last week and they talk about the golfers that have won the great event. It made me think about the Brickyard and when I think back to winning it, it makes it more special."
McMurray has a chance to make more history Friday at Indy when he drives for Ganassi in the Grand-Am race on the road course. It's the first sports car race and the first time a road race has been run on the same weekend as an oval race. McMurray will co-drive a BMW-powered Riley with Montoya.
"I remember watching all the Formula 1 races and I'm excited about the course," McMurray said. "Juan and I did a test and we probably ran 15 laps. It's a huge challenge to go in and to that. One of the biggest challenges is the strain on my neck. It's all right-hand corners and we usually run left-hand corners and I've spent the last two weeks training to prepare my neck.
"I got on the infamous Google and picked out eight exercises that I thought would benefit me the most. Driving with Juan, winning the Grand Am would be special."
McMurray will be back pursuing his full time work in Sprint Cup on Saturday and Sunday. He doesn't have many races to do it in but there is that goal of making the Chase.
"I think anything is possible," McMurray said. "We've got a road course coming up, Indy has been a good place. For us, we need to get our cars a little better, setups a little better, engine better and all the other stuff will work itself out if I run well."