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.

Miguel Oliveira wins MotoGP Thai Grand Prix, Bagnaia closes to two points in championship

MotoGP Thai Grand Prix
Mirco Lazzari / Getty Images
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Miguel Oliveira mastered mixed conditions on the Chang International Circuit in Buriram, Thailand to win the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix. Oliveira showed the adaptability as he navigated a race that began in wet conditions and turned dry over the course of the race. Oliveira won the Indonesian GP in similar conditions.

“It was a long race, but I can’t complain,” Oliveira said on CNBC. “Every time we get to ride in the wet, I’m always super-fast. When it started raining, I had flashbacks of Indonesia. I tried to keep my feet on the ground, make a good start and not make mistakes and carry the bike to the end.”

All eyes were on the championship, however. Francesco Bagnaia got a great start to slot into second in Turn 1.

Meanwhile Fabio Quartararo had a disastrous first lap. He lost five positions in the first couple of turns and then rode over the rumble strips and fell back to 17th. At the end of the first lap, Bagnaia had the points’ lead by two. A win would have added to the gain and for a moment, it appeared Bagnaia might assume the lead.

Early leader Marco Bezzecchi was penalized for exceeding track limits, but before that happened, Jack Miller got around Bagnaia and pushed him back to third. Oliveira was not far behind.

After throwing away ninth-place and seven points on the last lap of the Japanese GP last week, Bagnaia did not allow the competition to press him into a mistake. He fell back as far as fourth before retaking the final position on the podium.

“It’s like a win for me, this podium,” Bagnaia. “My first podium in the wet and then there was a mix of conditions, so I’m very happy. I want to thank Jack Miller. Before the race, he gave me a motivational chat.”

Miller led the first half of the Thai Grand Prix before giving up the top spot to Oliveira and then held on to finish second. Coupled with his Japanese GP win, Miller is now fully in the MotoGP championship battle with a 40-point deficit, but he will need a string of results like Bagnaia has put together in recent weeks – and he needs Bagnaia to lose momentum.

Miller’s home Grand Prix in Australia is next up on the calendar in two weeks.

Bagnaia entered the race 18 points behind Quartararo after he failed to score any in Japan. The balance of power has rapidly shifted, however, with Quartararo now failing to earn points in two of the last three rounds. Bagnaia won four consecutive races and finished second in the five races leading up to Japan. His third-place finish in Thailand is now his sixth MotoGP podium in the last seven rounds.

Aleix Espargaro entered the race third in the standings with a 25-point deficit to Quartararo, but was able to close the gap by only five after getting hit with a long-lap penalty for aggressive riding when he pushed Darryn Binder off course during a pass for position. Espargaro finished 11th.

Rain mixed up the Moto2 running order in the MotoGP Thai Grand Prix as well. Starting on a wet track, Somkiat Chantra led the opening lap in his home Grand Prix. He could not hold onto it and crashed one circuit later, but still gave his countrymen a moment of pride by winning the pole.

Half points were awarded as the race went only eight laps before Tony Arbolino crossed under the checkers first with Filip Salac and Aron Canet rounding out the podium.

American Joe Roberts earned another top-10 in eighth with Sean Dylan Kelly finishing just outside the top 10 in 11th.