Will Jamie McMurray be a ‘Dega dark horse once again?

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Perhaps the biggest subplot outside everything that’s happening in this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup has been the strength of Chip Ganassi Racing.

In particular, CGR rookie phenom Kyle Larson has been stellar this post-season with finishes of third, second, sixth, second, and sixth in the first five Chase races.

But his veteran counterpart, Jamie McMurray, has been solid as well. The Missouri native opened up the Chase with runs of ninth (Chicagoland) and fourth (New Hampshire).

He then finished 22nd at Dover due to handling woes, but he looked to have a Top-5 run in the bag at Kansas before he suffered a cut tire with less than 10 laps to go that relegated him to 25th. Last week at Charlotte, McMurray avoided such bad luck and posted his best finish of the season in third place.

Now, Big Mac will seek to keep up his momentum this weekend at Talladega, where he won under caution last fall (and in Auburn colors, no less).

To him, the key will be doing all he can to stay up front with the leaders. While he’s fully aware that there’s no bulletproof strategy to surviving 500 miles at Talladega, he says that it’s much harder these days to work through the packs in order to be in position for a late-race charge to the lead.

“I remember years ago riding in the back and saying with 50 laps to go, or whatever number we picked out, we’ll go to the front,” McMurray mused yesterday. “It seemed at the time you could do that, but now you can’t because we get three-wide, and we run three wide for most of the fuel run.

“It will single-file out, or maybe it is a double-wide at some point. [But] most of the run is three-wide, and you make your move like most places on a restart and you hope you can get in the row that is moving to the front, whether that is making it the third row, wherever it is…inside, middle outside. It’s hard to pass after that.

“It is hard to go four-wide. People don’t want to go with you when you get past three.”

Even with that issue, it’s not far-fetched to think of McMurray as a dark horse this weekend.

Save for Dover, he’s been relatively quick this Chase. And as we’ve written before, he has a penchant for stealing wins from those in the running for a championship.

His ‘Dega triumph one year ago marked his third victory in a Chase race. The first such win came at ‘Dega in 2009 for Roush Fenway Racing, and in 2010, he got his second one for CGR at Charlotte.

Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and Formula One embrace the United States

Verstappen Perez United States
Fatih Aktas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
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Last week, Red Bull Racing revealed its new car, the RB19, and a new relationship with Ford Motor Co. in an event in New York City complete with drivers Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez and team principal Christian Horner.

It’s the first Formula 1 team to launch in the United States for 2023, but even that small move of the needle reflects a major shift in the attitude of both F1’s management and their teams – and the extent to which the American audience has fully embraced the sport.

“It’s something fantastic and unique, for the sport to be able to break it into the U.S,” Perez told NBC Sports. “The market is huge and it’s a huge opportunity for everyone involved, for the drivers, for the team. It’s always a huge market.”

Verstappen Perez United States
Sergio Perez finished fourth in the Unites States Grand Prix, but he was first with the fans.  – Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

In 2023, Formula 1 will race three times in the United States and five times in North America. The Circuit of the Americas will host their 11th consecutive race in October before heading south to Mexico City. Miami returns for a second time in May on a temporary street course around the Hard Rock cafe and the third addition is in downtown Las Vegas in November.

With the Canadian Grand Prix on the schedule for June and the Brazilian Grand Prix in November, American fans are now in the ballpark of Europeans, who have eight events on the continent and one in England.

In 2022, Verstappen won every race in North America. He was kept from sweeping the hemisphere only by George Russell, who won in Brazil. That fact is less remarkable when one considers that Verstappen won 15 times in the season – nearly two-thirds of the races on the schedule.

By the time Formula arrived in Austin, Texas, for Round 20 of 23, Verstappen already had wrapped up his second consecutive championship.

“Sometimes it can be hard to replicate the season, but I think it’s the same as with the car, right? You always try to improve it,” Verstappen told NBC Sports. “And I always look at the little details that even when you have had a good race, you could have done better. And then of course you also learn from the bad races. So we always try to look for these little improvements and general experience you gain year after year.

“You try to do better, but of course it also depends a lot on the package you have.”

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Max Verstappen United States Grand Prix win was one of 15 for the drivers and 17 for Red Bull.
(Gongora / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Now Verstappen’s thoughts inevitably will turn to establishing a dynasty, and America will again play a pivotal role.

“I just enjoy what I’m doing,” Verstappen said.  “After the years in Formula One, when you have to be on top of your game and you gain a lot on your experience – in that sense nothing really can get to you anymore. Every year you just try to do the best you can. But a lot depends on the material around you. It’s always a bit of a guess. Start the season as fit as you can be and be well prepared. But if you don’t have the car, you’re not going to win the championship.”

Perez added two wins to Red Bull’s total, at Monaco and the Marina Bay Street course. With two of the US 2023 races on street courses, Perez hopes to close the gap on Verstappen and potentially be his chief rival for the championship.

“The strategy is clear; it is to maximize the potential of the car – and we believe we have a good car, but how good?,” Perez said “We don’t know what the competition is doing. We just give our best in building this car and we hope that it’s good enough to get us to win races.

“I think we have to work together as a team. At the same time. We both want to win the championship. It’s just having good compromise. The competition will be really strong out there, so we really need everything we possibly can get from each other.”

Formula One returns to the United States for Round 6 and the Miami Grand Prix on May 7.