McMurray Keeps Daytona Triumph in Perspective in 2011
Cory McCartney, SI.com
ATLANTA -- As Jamie McMurray sat there on a makeshift stage in the CNN Center, the reminders of the win that jumpstarted his breakout season were all around.
To his left was a photo of him waiving the checkered flag after winning last year's Daytona 500, to his right the Harley J. Earl Trophy, which he received for that victory. Every fan in attendance at the event to promote next month's 53rd running of the 500 was given a hat with the race's 2011 logo on it, the bill signed by McMurray.
But McMurray insists he moved on long ago -- "[In NASCAR] it's all about what you did last week, not what you did last year," he said -- though he's willing to concede he is looking forward to at least one last reminder of that victory. "After you win the [Daytona 500], they put your picture on the ticket for the following year," he told the crowd. "I can't wait to come back and sign my own face instead of [someone else's]."
That face is all that much more recognizable after McMurray delivered a season that absolutely nobody saw coming.
Despite having seven full Cup seasons under his belt, he entered 2010 as a gamble. McMurray latched on at Earnhardt-Ganassi after being let go at Roush-Fenway. After winning at Daytona in his first race with his new team, he went on to victories at two more of NASCAR's crown jewel tracks in Indianapolis and Charlotte, joining Dale Jarrett (1996) and Jimmie Johnson ('06) as the only drivers to win at DIS and Indy in the same season. He was a well-timed Kevin Harvick pass away from adding a fourth benchmark win at Talladega and was also runner-up at the first Charlotte race and at Darlington.
As he heads into a season that could see him emerge as a star in the Sprint Cup series, the 34-year-old insists he isn't getting caught up in things while trying to follow up his unforgettable run.
"I think it would be really tough to duplicate what we did last year," said McMurray, who recently agreed to a multiyear deal with Earnhardt-Ganassi. "But all we can really do is go out and [try to] do the same things we did last year."
Though that does include adding one more piece of the puzzle: making the Chase.
It was the only thing missing from his impressive year. Despite having nine top-5 finishes (only five other drivers had more), consistency, at least early on, proved costly. McMurray had seven finishes of 30th or worse, which played a major role in leaving him two spots removed from the qualifying for one of the 12 playoff berths. But there are plenty of reasons to believe he won't miss out on the postseason in 2011, most notably the way he performed in the No. 1 over the last 18 races.
"I felt like the second half of the season we were much more consistent than we were the first half," McMurray said. "We ran really well [in the first half], but we had too many really bad finishes, whether it be crashes or just unfortunate things happen."
From July 10th's stop in Chicagoland on, McMurray's average finish was 12.6 and he was 30th or worse just once, at Talladega, where he was runner-up in the spring. He credits it all to simply getting a feel for his new surroundings. He needed time to get used to how crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion called a race and the set ups for the Chevrolet after spending the previous four years driving Fords for Jack Roush.
"It's hard to explain to people that you're fairly uncomfortable when you change teams for a while until you get to know everybody and get to understand not just your team, but the whole organization," McMurray said.
But if there was one area where he, Manion and the No. 1 bowtie brigade clicked right away, it was in qualifying. McMurray's four poles tied him with Kasey Kahne for the series lead and he was among the top seven among full-time Cup drivers in average starting position (13.4).
"If we can just continue to have that good speed, I think the consistency will work itself out," he said.
During the fan and media event, two women took their seats in the crowd, each clutching small coolers that looked like the front end of McMurray's Bass Pro Shops ride. "I'm so excited," one of them said in a thick Southern drawl. "I just love Jamie McMurray."
It is the most unexpected of positions for a driver who was seemingly headed for unemployment before team owner Chip Ganassi gave him another chance, but McMurray isn't chasing stardom. He's comfortable with his current place in the NASCAR universe.
"When I first started racing in NASCAR, and I think everyone feels this way, you want to be the most popular and the most famous," he said. "I really enjoy just kind of getting to be who I am, and gosh, if you can win some of those big races on top of that, not having to be the most popular guy, I'm fully content with that. I like that."
He may not be the most popular or the most famous driver in the Cup circuit, but he is its best mannered, at least according to the National League of Junior Cotillions, which put him fourth among its 10 Best Mannered People of 2010, just below Saints quarterback Drew Brees, tween sensation Justin Bieber and Prince William's fiance Kate Middleton "for the respect he has earned as a NASCAR driver."
Just how does one celebrate such an accomplishment after you've already been to Victory Lane at Daytona, Indy and Charlotte in the past 12 months?
"First off, I was really excited, until I read an article and a guy said 'How did this name get in with all the other names?'" McMurray said. "I was like 'that was just a nice kick in the butt from that guy."
He laughed. In the face of stardom, in all its unexpected forms, the man knows how to keep things in perspective.