With a strong second-place run at Dover, newly confident Jamie McMurraycontinued his climb toward contender
Cruising down aNorth Carolina highway in his Ford Expedition three weeks ago, Jamie McMurraymade a crucial cellphone call to his racing mentor. McMurray, buried in 20thplace in the Nextel Cup standings, was searching for a way to kick-start hisseason--not to mention his career at Roush Racing.
"Don'tquestion yourself, and stick to your guns," Rusty Wallace, the 1989 Cupchampion who retired last year, told McMurray. "Tell everyone at Roush whatyou want [when it comes to setting up the handling characteristics of the racecar]. Don't be intimidated by anyone."
On Sunday on thehigh concrete bankings of the Monster Mile at Delaware's Dover InternationalSpeedway, McMurray was anything but intimidated. He led a race-high 95 laps ofthe Neighborhood Excellence 400 and finished second behind his Roush Racingteammate Matt Kenseth after a stirring duel during the closing laps. ForMcMurray, 30, who had been one of the season's biggest disappointments beforehe phoned Wallace, it was the second-straight top 10 finish; since his pep talkhe has climbed five spots in the standings to 15th. What's more, McMurray'srevival has raised the possibility that all five of owner Jack Roush's teamswill qualify for the Chase for the Championship, just as they did in 2005, tothe consternation of parity-coveting NASCAR officials. Roush drivers currentlystand second (Kenseth), third (Mark Martin), 12th (Greg Biffle), 14th (CarlEdwards) and 15th (McMurray) in points. "We're coming hard," said Roushwith a grin after the race.
"The goal isstill for us to make the Chase," McMurray said on Sunday evening as hestood beside the pit wall at Dover. "We just need to start reeling off thetop 10s, and I think we can do it. I know I'm a lot different now than I wasjust a few weeks ago."
In the off-seasonMcMurray, who narrowly missed the Chase the past two years (he finished 11th inpoints in 2004 and 12th in '05), moved from Chip Ganassi Racing to Roush, wherehe inherited the team that helped Kurt Busch win the '04 championship. ButMcMurray had trouble adjusting to being the new face on an established team."I was intimidated being around all these guys who had won championships,and I wasn't as vocal as I should have been," says McMurray. "I wastrying to drive cars that Matt and Greg and Carl like, but it just didn't workfor me."
The low point forMcMurray came on April 12, three days after he finished 37th at Texas MotorSpeedway, when he walked into the office of Jimmy Fennig, his crew chief, andsaw him packing his belongings into cardboard boxes. Because of theearly-season struggles of both McMurray and Edwards, Roush shuffled his crewchiefs, assigning Fennig to oversee Roush's Busch Series teams and shifting BobOsborne from Edwards's pit box to McMurray's. The move was a gamble becauseEdwards and Osborne nearly won the Cup last year, but so far it has worked:McMurray and Osborne developed almost instant chemistry. Since the switch,McMurray has been more at ease with his crew away from the track and moreassertive on it, consistently running among the leaders and finishing in thetop 15 in four of his six races with Osborne.
"It's takensome work, but Jamie is becoming more comfortable with everything at RoushRacing, and that's starting to show up in our results," says Osborne."We're getting better and better each week."
Last Fridayafternoon Tony Stewart stood atop the Home Depot hauler in the Dover infieldand watched with the anxiousness of a concerned parent as his number 20 Chevycircled the track during practice, 49-year-old Ricky Rudd at the wheel."Man," Stewart shouted above the roar of the engines, "thissucks."
On May 28 Stewartfractured his right shoulder blade in a crash at Lowe's Motor Speedway inCharlotte. NASCAR rules allowed Stewart to sit out qualifying at Dover, but toreceive championship points he would have to start the race. So on Sunday anaching Stewart drove the first 38 laps and then, under a caution, pitted andwas yanked from his seat by Jason Shapiro, his car chief (above). Rudd tookover and finished 25th to earn Stewart 88 points.
Though it couldtake up to two months for his shoulder to heal completely, Stewart plans todrive every lap of the Pocono 500 on Sunday at Pocono (Pa.) Raceway. The 20team is hoping for a quick recovery: In the last three weeks the 2005 champshave fallen from second to fifth in the standings.
> More NASCARanalysis by Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.