MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Jamie McMurray has become the “other” driver on Chip Ganassi Racing’s two-car team.
The 40-year-old veteran, in his 15th season on NASCAR’s top circuit, hasn’t won in more than four years. His teammate is 24-year-old Kyle Larson, the early points leader and one of racing’s rising stars.
But McMurray is enjoying a resurgence with three top-10 finishes in the first five races, good for sixth in the standings heading into Sunday’s 500-lap race at Martinsville Speedway. It’s a track where McMurray has finished second twice but never won.
“Here and Sonoma are kind of the two tracks to me that every year that I look the most forward to going to because I feel like I’ve always qualified really well at them and I’ve raced really well,” McMurray said Saturday. “Honestly, I really don’t feel like I’ve gotten the finishes I deserved at those two tracks.”
His second-place finishes on the 0.526-mile oval came 11 years apart, and he came up short against two of the best at Martinsville. Jimmie Johnson beat him in 2004 and Jeff Gordon in 2015. Both Hendrick Motorsports drivers have nine victories on the oldest and shortest track on NASCAR’s top series.
McMurray will start sixth, his sixth top-10 start in as many races this year. He always watches the previous year’s race in preparation, but he’s philosophical about how much he can control. Gordon had probably a fifth-place car when he won in 2015, McMurray said, but variables come into play late in every race.
“I think we’ll have a chance to win tomorrow,” he said. “Are the circumstances going to play out? I don’t know, but in three weeks, we might go somewhere and have the fifth-best car and we might win there.”
The improvements in his team, McMurray said, have been three years in the making, or since he started working with crew chief Matt McCall. Some changes in the offseason also have made their midweek work more beneficial.
“We changed the structure of our weekly procedure at the shop on meetings. We changed a lot of things and tweaked on it and I feel that’s really helped our performance,” McMurray said. He even changed the day he comes into the race shop because he didn’t feel he was using his time “efficiently or effectively.”
The changes haven’t been sweeping, but “10 little things that I feel have made a difference.”
A 117-race winless streak can cause whispers about whether a driver’s best days are behind him. McMurray doesn’t necessarily think that running well prolongs a driver’s career. But his current success makes him feel all the work is paying off.
“It just seems like every week we get a little quicker in relation to the other cars on the track,” he said. “It’s so much fun to come every week when you can compete and run as well as we have.”
When the time comes to walk away, McMurray has what he thinks is a clear picture of how it will go.
“I have every intention of being Ricky Rudd,” he said.
Rudd, a 23-race winner in a 33-year career, retired and apparently has no great need to linger around the garage and tracks.
“When I tell you this is my last one,” McMurray said, “you guys will never see me again.”
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