Jamie McMurray having a much different season than he’s used to on and off the track in 2014

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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.

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Jenson Button joins NASCAR Garage 56 at Le Mans with Jimmie Johnson, Rockenfeller

Jenson Button NASCAR Le Mans
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – The NASCAR Garage 56 entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be driven by champions of three major-league series — Jenson Button, Jimmie Johnson and Mike Rockenfeller.

The lineup of the Hendrick Motorsports-prepared Next Gen Camaro was announced Saturday before the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

NASCAR’s Garage 56 project was announced in March 2022 as a joint effort by NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear. It marks the return of a NASCAR team to Le Mans for the first time in nearly 50 years with Hendrick fielding a Camaro ZL1 as the “Garage 56” entry in the 100th edition of the sports car classic.

It’s long been expected the car would include Johnson, the seven-time Cup Series champion who is returning to NASCAR’s premier series as a driver-owner in 2023. Rockenfeller, the 2013 DTM champion and 2010 Le Mans overall winner, has attended every NASCAR Garage 56 test since last year while racking up simulator testing hours.

The surprise was Button, the 2009 Formula One champion who has become a popular commentator. Rick Hendrick initially said wanted four-time Cup champion and current Hendrick Motorsports COO Jeff Gordon to drive the car, and Gordon had raced a sports car at Indianapolis last year to test his race shape.

GARAGE 56 ANSWERS, ANALYSISMore on the NASCAR-Hendrick entry for the 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Since the beginning of the Garage 56 project, it has been our goal to partner with the top racers in the world to represent us in Le Mans,” NASCAR chairman and CEO Jim France said in a release. “The lineup of Jimmie, ‘Rocky’ and Jenson is everything we could have dreamed of – three elite drivers who have won at the highest levels of motorsports worldwide. As we celebrate the 75th anniversary of NASCAR, we are honored to have these world-class champions help bring the sights and sounds of a NASCAR race car to fans in Le Mans, and across the world.”

Button had one of the most prolific careers in F1 history finishing with 15 wins and 50 podiums on top of his 2009 World Championship and is widely considered one of the top British drivers of all time.

“As a lifelong racing fan, I have always dreamed of racing certain cars, with and against certain drivers and competing in certain events,” Button said in a release. “In June, a number of those dreams will come true in one event when I get to bring NASCAR to the world stage alongside my pals Jimmie and ‘Rocky’ for the 100th anniversary of the most prestigious race in the world. I’m really looking forward to sharing this journey with NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and current and future NASCAR fans from around the world.”

Johnson will make his 24 Hours of Le Mans debut a year after starting his first Indy 500. He has 83 victories in the Cup Series, where he will return for the Daytona 500 next month with his Legacy Motor Club team.

He also has been involved with testing the Garage 56 Camaro.

“I’m super thrilled – it’s been at the top of my bucket list to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans someday,” Johnson said. “To have this opportunity come – and to partner with everybody and this driver lineup – is truly an incredible opportunity and one that I am thankful to be a part of.”

Rockenfeller teamed with Johnson on the No. 48 Ally Cadillac in the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2021-22. The German driver has been the lead test driver for Garage 56 and has driven during every on-track test.

“It has been a great journey so far with the whole team and project,” Rockenfeller said. “To be involved as a driver from day one until now was already a great honor, and to now have Jimmie and Jenson alongside me as teammates in Le Mans is unbelievable.”

The car will continue testing with all three drivers next week at the Daytona International Speedway road course. Rolex 24 and four-time IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, who drives for Corvette Racing, will be the team’s backup driver and coach. Taylor also won the GTE Pro class in 2015 at Le Mans, where he has four podium finishes.

The project also is being supported by IMSA GTP team Action Express, whose general manager is former NASCAR executive and Daytona 500-winning crew chief Gary Nelson. Action Express built the first test car for the Garage 56 but since has handed off the project to Hendrick, where it’s being over seen by vice president of competition Chad Knaus (the crew chief for Johnson’s seven championships).

“Action Express got it going and built the mule car, and then Hendrick joined the program, took it from where we had it, and they’re doing a major percentage of the work,” Nelson told NBC Sports. “We just did a test a couple months ago on a wet track. We’ve done a couple of other tests as they were ramping their program up. Now their car is good, tested and running. We’re still involved and here to help. The Hendrick guys have taken the reins, and Rick Hendrick and Chad Knaus are a thrill to work with and doing a much better job. It’s more NASCAR than prototype racing.”