For Jamie McMurray, the 2010 season was one magical moment after another.
Winning the Daytona 500. Winning the Brickyard 400. Winning the Chase race at Charlotte. Helping team owner Chip Ganassi sweep the three biggest American auto races (including Dario Franchitti’s victory in last year’s Indy 500).
And winning a career-high three races in one season.
Each accomplishment had its own special significance.
But the moment that perhaps means the most to McMurray was walking into the Charlotte Motor Speedway media center after his third victory and discovering that the media was not at all surprised to see him.
“When I walked into the media center after winning the Daytona 500, it was definitely emotional and everybody was congratulating me and saying good things can happen to good guys, and that was really exciting,” McMurray said. “I kind of had the same thing after winning at the Brickyard.
“But when I walked into the media center at Charlotte, I felt like everybody just kind of looked at me and went like, ‘Oh, it’s Jamie.’ And that was the coolest feeling ever that you guys weren’t shocked that I was in there.
“You find that funny, but I’m being very sincere. It’s hard to explain, but it was a good feeling.”
After winning three races last season, including NASCAR’s two biggest events, McMurray has clearly arrived, finally fulfilling the potential he showed when he won in just his second career start in 2002 with Ganassi.
The question now: What can he do for an encore?
The next step seems obvious: Making the Chase For The Sprint Cup for the first time in his career.
But for McMurray, he still wouldn’t trade last year’s three wins for a spot in the Chase.
“It’s going to be really hard for us to have a year like we had last year,” said McMurray, who has six career Cup wins. “You want to make the Chase, that is a huge deal, but just making the Chase would not be a bigger deal than the races we won last year.
“If we had won three races and they hadn’t been the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, it might be a little bit different, but I think there are a lot of guys who made that Chase last year that would have traded with me in a heartbeat.”
McMurray, who spent four years at Roush Fenway Racing before being reunited with Ganassi last year, has finished 14th or better in points four times, but has yet to make the Chase.
But finally making it is not going to be enough after the season he had last year.
“For us to have a better season, it would be about not only making the Chase but contending for the championship down to the last four or five races,” McMurray said. “If we can do that, that would be a solid season.”
The performance by McMurray’s Earnhardt Ganassi team – he also had three second-place finishes among his nine top-fives – has many people believing that McMurray could be on the verge of greatness.
Carl Edwards said recently that he would not be surprised to see McMurray win 10 races this year. McMurray and his team believe they can be serious contenders.
“Absolutely,” crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion said. “We won a race in the Chase at Charlotte and ran strong in a lot of other [Chase races]. … I feel we are a championship company and we have championship teams and drivers. And obviously Chip is a champion, and Chip himself is what drives us.
“For our small organization to do as well as it did against some of the powerhouse teams, I would consider us now a powerhouse team, and I hope everyone sees that.”
To reach the next level, McMurray must be more consistent than he was last year. Despite nine top-fives and 12 top-10s, he also had 10 finishes of 24th or worse, including several races in which he ran well but faded badly at the end.
“If you feel like you are a top-12 team, why did you finish 26th with nothing wrong with the car?” Manion asks. “We have to look at those races.”
The season finale at Homestead was a perfect example. McMurray qualified third, ran in the top five all day and then wound up 21st after fading in the final 50 laps.
“We basically went to hell,” Manion says. “Why and how? If we can fix those little issues, we are going to be a great race team.”
After being wildly inconsistent in the first half of the season, the team improved steadily after the July win at Indy, climbing from 18th to 14th in points.
“I don’t know that we really have to change anything,” McMurray said. “I think that our second half of the season was strong enough. … If we can get our short-track cars a little bit better, I really don’t think it’s going to be a huge issue if we don’t have bad luck.”
More consistency and being perhaps a bit more conservative at times are the keys, Manion says.
“I think knowing Jamie a lot better now than we did a year ago, knowing his strengths and weaknesses, I think we can put all that together and have a real solid year,” he said.