A bit of friendly advice: don’t make the mistake of calling Jamie McMurray “old.”
On the one hand, while McMurray still looks young enough to be carded at a bar, appearing to maybe be in his mid-20s, the fact is he turned 38 in June.
But on the other hand, his age has definitely come into play more so this season than in any other of his prior 11 full-time seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.
With series veteran Juan Pablo Montoya leaving NASCAR to return to IndyCar prior to this season, McMurray went from the younger guy on the two-car Chip Ganassi Racing team to the aging veteran himself.
What’s more, he’s now teamed with 21-year-old Kyle Larson, making McMurray both a teammate and something he’s never really been before in his career, namely, a mentor.
“I’ve always had to be the younger guy,” McMurray joked during a test session Tuesday at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill. “I joked around at dinner last night that Kyle’s young enough to legitimately be my son. It wouldn’t even be weird if I said I had an 18-year-old son.
“And Keith (Rodden), my crew chief, is younger (33) than me. I don’t know if it’s tough or hard, but that’s a transition in life, when you’re all of a sudden not the youngest one around, right? But Kyle’s a real good teammate and I’ve enjoyed the time I’ve spent with him.”
While not casting any negative comments or aspersions at former teammate Montoya, McMurray said he and Larson have bonded quickly.
“Kyle is pretty easy to talk to,” McMurray said. “It’s so hard to compare people without building one up or knocking the other one down. But Kyle and I definitely talk more than what Juan and I did.
“He’s new and fresh and doesn’t have any bad habits yet, so it’s kind of fun to look at his races or engine data or listen to Kyle talk. I think he’s perceived as this extremely quiet individual, but is actually pretty funny and does talk a lot if you ask him questions. He’s refreshing is probably the word just because he’s new and doesn’t know right from wrong yet. I’ve really enjoyed my time with him.”
With two races remaining to make this year’s expanded 16-driver field for the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup, McMurray knows he needs a win at either Atlanta this Saturday or the final Chase qualifying race on Sept. 6 at Richmond.
“Everyone’s plan every week is to win,” McMurray said. “The media makes it that they have to win one of the next two to get into the Chase. Everybody gambles and takes risks every single week, so I don’t know if that plays out any differently.”
But the fact is McMurray won’t make the Chase unless he wins one of the next two races. And while he’s not giving up on those hopes, he’s also cognizant that even if he falls short, he can still end the season with a flourish even as a non-Chase contender.
“I think that it’s going to be a little bit different this year because there’s going to be 16 guys involved,” McMurray said. “If you make the Chase and you finish 16th in points, I don’t know if that’s that stellar of a year. I think there could be a guy that doesn’t make the Chase and could win two or three races in the Chase, finishes 17th in the points, and I’m going to say he had a lot better year.
“I don’t know if you can base your year just on making or not making (the Chase), because ultimately every week is about winning. There might be somebody that makes the Chase that never wins a race. I don’t know if that guy at the end of the year is going to sit down and say, ‘Wow, we just really killed it this year.’
“It’s not make-or-break. Getting to win the All-Star Race (back in May) was awesome for us. Certainly, if we could have won last weekend (at Bristol, where he led a race-high 148 laps and finished eighth), it would have been special and then you’re in the Chase. Then you look at your year and say, ‘We’ve won a couple times and we made the Chase.’ But really, I hate that there’s so much emphasis put on just making the Chase, because if you just make it and you don’t run well, I don’t really see where that’s all that great.
“To just make the Chase and not win a race really isn’t what you’re looking for. If you don’t make it but you could win three races in the last 10, I think everyone would take that over just making the Chase, especially now that there’s 16 guys in it. It’s not quite as special as it was when there were just 10 in it.”
While McMurray is 16th in the conventional Sprint Cup standings, there are five drivers behind him in the standings who will vault into the Chase because they all have one win thus far this season: Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola.
While he’s managed two top-fives and five other top-10s, things have been a struggle for McMurray in 2014 – although he considers this a better season for him performance-wise than 2010, when he won three major races (including the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400), only to miss the Chase and finish 14th for the entire season.
“We have run, I think, probably better than we ran in 2010 when we won a few big races,” McMurray said. “In 2010, we ran really well or we ran horrible. There was no in-between. This year, our horrible’s have been 14th when we were to finish if we didn’t blow a tire or have something to happen.
“And then our good runs, we well really run at Charlotte, won the All-Star Race, ran real well last weekend. We’ve run really well at a lot of different racetracks and performance-wise, it’s probably been the best year of my career.”
But it would be that much better if he wins this Sunday or next Saturday.
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