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Thursday, January 04, 2007

NASCAR Driver Preview: Jamie McMurray

Jamie McMurray
0 wins, 3 top 5’s, 7 top 10’s, 9 top 15’s
Avg start: 25.3 Avg finish 23.6
Points Rank: 25th Driver Rating: 67.4
#26 Crown Royal/Irwin Ford Crew Chief: Larry Carter

Race fans with any level of interest know about Jamie McMurray's story in 2006. First the obvious. He moved to Roush in highly publicized move from Ganassi in 2005. It was a case of a talented driver in search of better equipment. It made sense, except that's not how it played out. He had his worst season in Cup. He endured three crew chiefs, 7 DNF's and had fewer top fifteens (9) than his top ten total in any of his first seasons. And he didn't get any closer to winning his first race since 2002. He did have some nice runs, but fell well short of expectations.

The most vivid picture of McMurray's struggle was of him sitting dejectedly in his garage stall during the Texas race. The handling on the car was so bad he couldn't drive it. No mechanical issues or damage from a wreck, just a terrible car and McMurray and crew having no answer. Jack Roush made a crew chief change the next week, moving Bob Osborne from Carl Edwards' car to the #26 of McMurray.

Aside from the Texas letdown, McMurray hadn't run terribly in the first seven races. A late crash ruined a top ten at Daytona, and he finished 7th at California and 9th at Martinsville. The change initially got results. McMurray finished 14th at Phoenix, 5th at Talladega, 8th at Lowes and 2nd at Dover. He led 95 laps at Dover before teammate Matt Kenseth passed him late for the win. McMurray led a mere 37 total laps in 2005.

McMurray couldn't sustain the success, recording only two top tens the rest of the year. At the start of the season McMurray apparently wasn’t comfortable in the same setups as his teammates. As the year progressed, it’s hard to say whether it was McMurray struggling or Roush Racing as a whole. Roush's intermediate program, their bread and butter the past few years, struggled in the second half of the year, especially during the Chase.

Looking back on the season, when McMurray wasn't struggling, his luck abandoned him. Crashes at Daytona, Bristol, Talladega and Phoenix spoiled good runs. He sat on the outside pole at Sonoma only to spin twice on the first lap. A rock at Darlington knocked his oil pump belt loose, ruining the engine. There is nothing to do but throw your hands up.

Another confounding statistic is McMurray's qualifying on 2006. He had 16 starts of 30th or worse and eight starts worse than 40th. Usually qualifying doesn't mean a lot, especially in relation to finishes. It still illustrates the complete struggle McMurray endured. A car from a top team shouldn’t be consistently outran by single-car, under-funded field-fillers. The other four Roush cars all started an average 19.3 or better.

The question that dogs McMurray is “when will he win another race?” It’s not to Jeff Burton lengths yet, but announcers constantly remind people that he hasn’t won since he subbed for Sterling Marlin in 2002. Despite many critics, McMurray is a very good driver that excels at any type of track. Phoenix is the only track for McMurray without a top ten, although he has a Busch win in 2004. He is equally capable at restrictor plate tracks, short tracks or road courses. Three of his top 10’s were at plate tracks. He is also great at California (5 top 10’s in 7 races), Martinsville, and Charlotte. When he resumes running up front he has a chance to win practically anywhere.

Now it's up to Roush to get McMurray back the front. The team may have slipped below Gibbs, and Hendrick, but Roush is still one of the best organizations at the Cup level. Larry Carter was recently hired as crew chief. He previously worked with Rusty Wallace at Penske and for Michael Waltrip Racing this past year. With the introduction of coil-bound spring packages, certain drivers weren't as comfortable. A second year with Roush should help McMurray find a setup that suits him.

In his first three seasons McMurray finished 13th, 11th, and 21th. He barely missed the Chase in 2004 and 2005. He didn't forget how to drive in one season filled with poor races, tough crashes and strange luck. The season also wasn't as bad as the results show. Switching teams, even a perceived upgrade, is not simply A+B=C. McMurray should return to the top 15 in points and consistently running in the top ten. A win wouldn't be a total shock, especially at California if Roush can regain their mojo at 1.5 and 2 mile tracks.

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