Gameface: It's been a career year for Jamie McMurray. Now it's time for his next biggest test: Talladega!
Talladega Superspeedway tends to be either loving or brutalizing towards its 43 suitors, embracing some for driving all her 2.66-miles of asphalt like a California drive or torturing them, much like Jack Bauer would to obtain vital information from a sneaky suspect on the acclaimed television show 24.
For Jamie McMurray, his track record at this mammoth NASCAR staple is like life: lots of ups accompanied by downs.
Sure, he's got a victory at this facility from last fall (his final win with the Roush-Fenway Racing organization), four other top-fives, and six total top-10 finishes in his past 16 starts. On the flip side, there are the mediocre finishes, in which McMurray has finishes of 12th or worse, including three crash-related DNFs (Oct. 2006-'07 and April '09).
That's typical for most racers at this superspeedway, in which their fate is determined by luck based on their position on the track. The difference between a good and bad day is measured by a blink of an eye, just enough time for a driver to experience the Gatorade bath of Victory Lane or the agony of defeat with an obliterated stock car in the garage area.
However, it's not been a typical season for the the 34-year-old Joplin, MS native, who's virtually had a dream 2010 campaign that's seen him capture three wins. Those checkered flags include a victory in the 51st Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 at Indy and the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Not bad for a racer whose future was in shambles last winter, in which one of the sport's most promising stars went from the "next best thing" to a complete afterthought on the circuit.
Touted as a solid top-10 points contender by many prognostics in the mid 2000's, it appeared as if the stock car sensation was headed on the right track of success for his immediate future.
That is, until he left his first Sprint Cup team for what looked like greener pastures in the form of one of the sport's elite and perennial organizations.
McMurray tried every way in the book to make things work at Roush-Fenway Racing, a dream job for the 2003 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, but his tenure from 2006-2009 was marred by disappointment.
Being a small fish in a big pond just wasn't in the cards, with fate and circumstances leading the lame duck racer back home to Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, essentially the original organization that he drove for from 2003-2005.
Unlike the past four years, the 2010 season has been a year of redemption, with the congenial driver of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet Impala looking more comfortable with his surroundings.
Perhaps McMurray's made an example of the adage, "There's no place like home." At EGR, he knows he's the big fish in a small pond, with his team catering to his needs promptly as well as the sense of familiarity with the prominent team.
There are some intangibles to consider, like:
- Could it be his crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion, whose cool and steady demeanor compliments the equally reserved but personable nature of McMurray?
- Is it that powerful EGR motor that's given McMurray the competitive edge to compete against the likes of Hendrick, Gibbs and Childress for race wins?
- Has McMurray matured since arriving in the sport in 2000, looking more like a confident and calculative racer than the one who overdrove his equipment?
While inconsistency has plagued McMurray's efforts for a bid in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship, he finds himself sitting 13th in points, with nine top-fives, 11 top-10's and a trio of victories. That's almost his combined statistics in his four years at Roush-Fenway Racing, showing that he certainly still has what it takes to compete and contend on the circuit.
With the series heading back to Talladega for a Halloween Sunday "spooktacular" aka the AMP Energy Juice 500 (Live, 1 PM ET on ESPN), McMurray returns to a track where he's performed solidly in the past two races.
He captured a stirring victory in a crash-marred but exciting October classic last fall, tallying that with a runner-up effort last April, narrowly being defeated at the line by Kevin Harvick.
Sure, this team still has some work to do on the chalkboard as far as finding speed and consistency in the offseason and there's still a bit of uncertainty as to where McMurray will drive after this season.
All said, besides Harvick, who's looking to capture maximum points in his efforts to catch and pass points leader Jimmie Johnson, it's not a half bad idea to choose McMurray, who has a respectable average finishing position of 16.2.
Making the weekend more significant and special for McMurray, and for that matter, his team and fans, is that the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet will be adorned in the 1998 Sprint All-Star Race paint scheme piloted by the late Dale Earnhardt.
McMurray's machine will consist of a primarily gold base complimented by black, much like the machine that "The Intimidator" drove in the sport's biggest non-points event of the year.
In this case, however, points are on the line and without a doubt, there's only one place at Talladega (besides the race lead) that McMurray wants to drive the car whose namesake greatly changed NASCAR: the winner's circle.
A victory for the ninth year racer would serve notice to the rest of the Cup gang that the No. 1 team's a force to be reckoned with in the immediate future, especially given their solid runs and finishes this year.