Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 2 of 12)
Inconsistency may have plagued Jamie McMurray's bid of cracking the Chase field in 2010, but he accomplished something (as a matter of fact, three times) that star racers like Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, and Mark Martin failed to do at least once last year:
It was a breakthrough year for the Joplin, MO native, who finally displayed his stock car racing talents after four dismal years with Roush-Fenway Racing, capturing a trio of victories, four poles, nine top-fives and 12 top-10s en route to a 14th-place finish in the points standings.
Perhaps his biggest highlight had to be the Daytona 500 victory, in which the usually mild mannered racer shed some tears of joy and elation in stock car racing's biggest stage - the hallowed grounds of Victory Lane at "The World Center of Racing."
While about every racer would be unhappy finishing well short of a championship, much less the top 10 in points, it was a long road back to relevance for the 34-year-old driver.
Although McMurray's stout on superspeedways, solid on road courses, and average on the rest of the Sprint Cup circuit, labels like "has been" and "overrated" were used to describe the 2003 Raybestos Rookie winner.
The Missouri hero wasn't exactly contending for wins and championships with Roush-Fenway Racing, arguably the strongest Ford Racing team in the Cup Series, often serving as an afterthought on the track rather than a driver who was in contention for victories on a race-to-race basis.
Prior to his Roush-Fenway years, he was the top talent with a then fledgling Chip Ganassi/Felix Sabates racing organization.
McMurray piloted the black No. 42 Havoline Dodge to points finishes of 13th, 11th, and 12th in his first full time seasons from 2003-'05 before flocking to Ford sheet metal and Jack Roush.
Dabbling a bit on the Cup scene in '02 as an emergency starter for the injured Sterling Marlin, he also visited the winner's circle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, capturing the Oct. 13 running of the UAW-GM Quality 500 in only his second career start.
His victory prompted some thoughts that he'd be a race winning machine, grabbing checkered flags and contending for championships with ease. But as Ringo Starr once sang, "You know it don't come easy."
Winless for five seasons, McMurray wouldn't visit Victory Lane again until 2007, when he won the 400-miler at Daytona Beach in razor thin fashion over Kyle Busch.
A victory two years at Talladega in the fall would be the only other highlight reel worth replaying for the Show-me State native, who rarely had anything to show for in the ever competitive world of Sprint Cup racing.
That is, of course, until 2010 came along.
Don't call it a comeback (sorry LL Cool J), but rather, a renaissance of a driver's career in grand style. Not exactly Cinderella-like, but enough to prompt some folks into thinking that McMurray might make the Chase field in 2011.
When a driver can capture victories in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and the 500-mile classic at Charlotte in one season, it's a testament not only to the talented team which propels a driver in position for victories, but the individual who's hauling it on the track on every lap.
Overlooked prior to the start of the 2010 season, it's safe to assume that the congenial racer will not be so easily forgotten this coming season.
Just like every racer on team on the circuit (even Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 bunch), improvements must be made with the No. 1 team's game in order to really step it up and contend for a Chase seed.
First of all, they need to work on their consistency, especially in nabbing consecutive top-10 finishes.
For instance, after capturing the Daytona 500 in February, McMurray and the No. 1 Chevrolet had three straight sub top-15 finishes (17th at Auto Club, 34th at Las Vegas, and 29th at Atlanta) before placing in the top-10 with an 8th at Bristol.
Terrible stretches hurt this team's efforts to press forward with a push for a top-12 spot, including a five-race stretch with finishes of 15th or worse in the summer stretch (36th at Pocono, 24th at Michigan, 15th at Infineon, 18th at Loudon, and 39th in the summer classic at Daytona).
Those are the kind of momentum killers that will mire a team in dependable reliable territory, or a place where racers just miss the cut and often place 15th or below in just about every race.
Secondly, qualifying is another aspect of this team's game that's somewhat lacking. While they captured four poles, they also had some problems charging their way up to the front on most occasions.
With the exception of the fall Charlotte race, in which McMurray went from 27th to 1st in a matter of just over 500 miles, there weren't many races where he'd comeback after a mediocre starting position.
Lastly, it's up to McMurray to relay information back to his team, particularly with crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion, that will help him urge an ill-handling mount into a machine that can attack at will in the corners and on the straights to nab positions in the closing stages of a race.
While these aren't necessarily all the concerns that will guarantee success for the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/McDonald's Chevrolet team, what's certain is if this team can duplicate it success and learn from its failures of 2010, the upcoming NASCAR season will bring a little more than yuletide joy and praise.
Rather, the upcoming campaign could be one where "Big Mac" will finally show where it's at with a team that'll make some noise in 2011.