Smilin' Mac: Chase Logical Next Step
Mark Aumann, NASCAR.COM
ATLANTA -- Jamie McMurray couldn't have asked for a better 12 months since winning the 2010 Daytona 500. His son, Carter Scott, was born on Thanksgiving Day. McMurray recently agreed to a multi-year contract extension with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
But the best thing might be that when McMurray's name is announced before the start of every race for the rest of his career, it'll include the words "Daytona 500 winner."
A new father's perspective "Winning Daytona was a huge deal," McMurray said during a recent visit to CNN Center. "And it certainly set the tone for our team for the season. Then going into the next race and sitting on the pole, it just seemed like everything was going our way.
"But getting to win at the Brickyard, for me personally was a huge deal. Not only because it's the second-biggest race of the year, but because it wasn't a restrictor-plate race. And then going back and winning Charlotte later on. Getting to have all that, together with the poles, has really made for an awesome year."
For McMurray, winning one of the most unusual races in the 50-plus year history of Daytona International Speedway is the defining moment of his career. But it also seems like ancient history, in a way.
"It seems like 10 years ago, honestly when I look back," McMurray said. "The NASCAR season's so long and so much happens, it seems like a long time ago. And it was only a year ago. [Because of that,] I have a lot different perspective on our sport and my career, and just life in general."
Because the 500 kicks off the Cup season, McMurray said winning it is a springboard for the rest of the year.
"It's strange that we have our biggest race of the year first," McMurray said. "But when you win it, it makes your whole year great. Because you could run really bad all year and then win the Daytona 500, and if it was the last race of the year, it would just be different. You wouldn't get to carry the [momentum] that you get from that. But the reality sets in when you get to the next race and it's not a restrictor-plate race, and things don't go as well."
McMurray, a Joplin, Mo., native, made his Cup debut in 2002, subbing for the injured Sterling Marlin in Chip Ganassi's No. 40 Dodge, and promptly won in his second start. But despite narrowly missing the Chase field in 2003 and '04, McMurray couldn't find his way back to Victory Lane, eventually leaving the team to join Jack Roush.
He won a pair of restrictor-plate races there during a four-year span, but when Roush was required to eliminate one of his five teams before the 2010 season, McMurray found himself the odd man out.
"I don't regret at all going to Roush and making the move from Ganassi, because I learned a lot," McMurray said. "Even though I had a lot of success last year, I've thought about why didn't things work at Roush. The difference between where I am now and Roush is that they build the cars around the drivers here. If they were to make me run [Juan Montoya's] car with Juan's setup in it every week, I would have very similiar results to what I had at Roush the whole time.
"When I was at Roush -- and I'm not going to name any particular teams -- but the cars are built around certain teams. And if that doesn't work for you, you're supposed to figure out how to make that work. Some guys are able to do that and some aren't."
But the familiar surroundings of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- and being paired with crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion -- seemed to bring back McMurray's confidence.
"Last year, we hit on a couple of things that were a little bit out there, McMurray said. "And we really maxed it out. I remember being at Indy and feeling like we had an advantage over other teams, and I was telling that to myself before the start of the race.
"When I got on the plane to come home from Indy, I was like, 'That's what you have to do.' You have to make those days happen when you feel like you have the advantage. It's been great coming back because I feel like they allow us to do our own thing."
McMurray won the pole at Chicagoland and finished fifth. And from that point on, it seemed like McMurray was a contender nearly every week.
"At the beginning of the year, we were not very consistent," McMurray said. "But from Chicago on, we were consistent. At Daytona and Talladega, we got crashed so it really hurt our points. But I really thought the whole second half of the year, not only did we win a couple of races, but we were very consistent.
"On our big days, we ran 20th, which is not great. But if you finish 20th on your bad days, you still accumulate enough points to make the Chase, if you have enough good days. When you finish 30th, you just can't make up the difference. It's a deep hole.
"If you finish 30th, it literally takes a month of good races just to get even again. On our bad days, we would finish 16th to 20th, and those were days when you went home miserable."
With that in mind, McMurray believes he has every right to think he can make the Chase field in 2011.
"In hindsight, I think we accumulated the eighth-most points the second half of the year, and that would have put us in the Chase," McMurray said. "When you get in the Chase and get to compete for the championship, it's all about putting 10 good races together, which is hard but possible for anybody who makes the top 12."
And for Daytona? Defending his victory would be sweet, but McMurray looks at it realistically.
"I think just having a good weekend," McMurray said. "The 500's going to be different this year than it's been since I've been in Cup, because of the new surface and the amount of grip the track has. I run every day and I wear a heart-rate monitor, and I've thought about Daytona a little bit, and my heart rate just skyrockets when I think about the position I want to be in with the last few laps to go. It's going to be so close and so chaotic.
"Even when the track was worn out, it seemed like when the sun went down and it got a little bit of grip, it got wild. But I think it's going to be that way the whole time. So surviving the Daytona 500 is going to be an accomplishment."
New son, new contract, new confidence. McMurray even has new advice for bachelors looking to settle down and start a family.
"The biggest thing I have learned is when you choose a wife, choose one who will be a good mother," McMurray said. "I have learned that I chose well, because Christy has taken a lot of that responsibility on. And I look at what all she's doing, and I don't know that a man is capable of doing all that. That's a fact. If you're a dad, you know exactly what I mean."