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

Eli Tomac wins Tampa Supercross, takes red plate home

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With his third win of the season, Eli Tomac took the red plate from Ken Roczen at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. Entering with a one-point deficit, Tomac left with a four-point advantage in the 2020 Monster Energy Supercross championship hunt.

Tomac has struggled with starts so far this season. Saturday, he was part of a four-rider separation on the opening lap. He slotted in behind Adam Cianciarulo and went to school on his teammate.

“Our starts were better,” Tomac told NBCSN after the race. “That was the key. We put ourselves in a position early so that we could go to battle and ride the way we’re supposed to ride.”

Tomac claimed his 30th career win as the riders behind swapped positions. Cianciarulo and Malcolm Stewart started out with top-five runs. Both had the podium in site before they faded and gave last year’s Big Three free reign at the front of the pack.

“Early on I was just following Adam,” Tomac said. “With these short lap times I knew we had a lot of laps under our belt tonight. So I kind of just settled tonight and then made the push just before halfway.

“And I thought I’ve go to go if I’m going to go. So I was able to switch up the sand there. That was really cool with the option. A good passing spot.”

Cooper Webb finished second. It is his fifth podium of the year, but he felt he could have challenged Tomac if he had gotten through traffic a little faster. Roosters from the sand section blinded him and forced a more cautious approach from on top of his KTM.

Roczen minimized his points loss with a third-place finish. It could have been much worse. At about the halfway point, Roczen fell. Luckily for him, Cianciarulo went down on the same lap and took much longer to right his bike, which allowed Roczen to hold onto a top-three spot. Roczen ended the race nearly 11 seconds behind Webb and 18 behind Tomac.

Last year’s Big Three all stood on the podium.

Speed has not been a problem for Cianciarulo. He has been fastest in qualification every week including Tampa, but he is still learning how to get to the finish without making mistakes.

Last week Cianciarulo lost the lead late at San Diego when Webb was able to study his line. This week Cianciarulo had the opportunity to study Tomac, but he refused to simply ride and gain experience.

Earlier this week, Cianciarulo told NBC Sports: “The adversity I’ve faced – the mistakes I’ve made – have all been basically caused because of not settling. Just trying to get the absolute most I can out of every race. I guess in a way you can look at that and say it was inexperience or a rookie being a rookie.”

Cianciarulo went from second at the midway point to ninth at the checkers.

Justin Barcia and Justin Hill rounded out the top five.

Stewart had one of his best runs of the season, but he faded in the closing laps. On the final trip around the track, he nipped Jason Anderson at the line.

Shane McElrath won the opening round of the 250 East division, just as he has done in his last two 250 West openers. Feld Entertainment Inc.

250 EAST: Shane McElrath won the opening rounds of his 2017 and 2018 seasons. Both of those came at Anaheim in the 250 West division. Switching coasts did not make any difference. McElrath drew first blood in the series with a 3-second advantage over last year’s 250 East champion, Chase Sexton.

“Nobody outside of my wife and I really know what went into this year and what a hit we took last year mentally,” McElrath told NBCSN. “It was a struggle. Everybody goes through their down times, and I really had a lot of growing to do last year.”

Sexton got off to a bad start on the first lap. All the news wasn’t bad. After getting mired in the pack at the start, he picked his way through the field and settled into second about halfway through the main event. Sexton made up 8 seconds as the clock ticked but simply ran out of time.

“I didn’t execute my start like I needed to,” Sexton said. “You can’t come from fifth and expect to catch them by the end of the race.”

In his first race back after a year and a half with a broken back, Jeremy Martin stood tall on the last rung of the podium

Garrett Marchbanks and Jordan Smith rounded out the top five.

450s

Heat 1: Eli Tomac is not known for his starts. It’s time to rethink that after Heat 1. Tomac bolted to a big lead on Lap 1. … Malcolm Stewart led the field to the first corner. He slid wide exiting the corner and slipped back several spots before charging back to second. … Cooper Webb backed up his win last week with a third-place finish. … Vince Friese finished ninth to grab the final transfer. | Heat 1 Results

Heat 2: Ken Roczen stalked Adam Cianciarulo until the rookie buried his front wheel in the sand section. That stalled his momentum and allowed Roczen to take the lead. It set up a huge battle for the final battle for the top spot as the two crossed under the checkers nose to tail … Roczen won over Cianciarulo. … Zach Osborne took the final rung of the podium. … Back after a two-year hiatus, Broc Tickle finished fourth. It was like he had never been off the bike. … On Lap 1 Blake Baggett jumped into the back of Jared Lesher. They collected Joshua Cartwright, who got pinned under his bike and limped off the track. Baggett recovered to finfish eighth. … Kyle Chisholm took the final transfer position in ninth. | Heat 2 Results

LCQ: Chad Reed had to go through the LCQ, but he qualified for his 255th 450 Main where he would finish 19th. … Kyle Cunningham provided a lot of drama as time was running off the clock, but missed a corner and settled for second. Ryan Breece finished third. … Making his first Main of the season, Adam Enticknap swapped positions with Daniel Herrlien throughout the race and nipped him at the end.  | LCQ Results

250s

Heat 1: Shane Mcelrath grabbed the lead early and held it throughout the heat. He won by 14 seconds, but much of that was because of mistakes by the second- and third-place riders. … Garrett Marchbanks had a quick off early in the race. He recovered to finish second. … Jordon Smith struggled in the sand. He went down early in the sand section, but he held position for a while. A second mistake in the sand allowed his teammate Marchbanks to pass him. … The final transfer position was a barnburner as Nick Gaines held off a determined charge by Hunter Sayles on the final lap. | Heat 1 Results

Heat 2: Chase Sexton told reporters before the race that he is determined to dominate. So far so good as he let the entire heat in route to the top spot on the podium. … Jeremy Martin settled into a comfortable spot four seconds back as the battle for third heated up. … Jo Shimoda held it for a while, but was eventually overrun by RJ Hampshire, who took the final rung of the podium … Shimoda faded to fifth. … The final transfer spot went to Cedric Soubeyras. … Joey Crown finished a respectable eighth and also transferred. | Heat 2 Results

LCQ: Jimmy Decotis made his move at the right time. With less than a minute on the clock, he caught and passed Curran Thurman. … Jimmy Decotis finished third. … The battle of the night was for the final transfer spot. Jalek Swoll made a dramatic pass in the final turn, but bogged down in the whoops and allowed Isaac Teasdale to catch him at the line in a photo finish. Teasdale took the final spot | LCQ Results

Click here for 450 Main Results | Season Points
Click here for 250 Main Results | Season Points

Next race: February 22, AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Season passes can be purchased at NBC Sports Gold.

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