Making the Chase in the Sprint Cup Series is a sure way of saying that a driver and his team have put together a successful year, but success in the sport is not limited to the 12 drivers and teams that make it into the final round.
After his third win of the season at Charlotte on Saturday night, Jamie McMurray can make a strong argument that the season he has put together assures him of being in the elite class of drivers for 2010.
McMurray’s year was well documented heading into Saturday’s night race with his wins in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. His third win on Saturday ties him with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch for the third-most wins on the season, trailing only Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, both of whom have made six trips to victory lane.
In addition to McMurray’s three wins are four poles on the season. That is twice as many as any of the Chase drivers, and his nine top-5 finishes would tie him for fourth in that category. Those numbers are great and show that he is capable of winning any time the green flag waves. But making the Chase is all about consistency, and this is where McMurray let his chance for running for the title get away from him. His 11 top-10 finishes are less than any of the Chase drivers.
While he is not running for the title, 2010 may be McMurray’s breakout season. He and his Chip Ganassi Racing team must now figure out how to post the kind of finishes on days when you are not running for the win that will still give you the points needed to make the Chase.
All they have to do is look at what Roush-Fenway Racing did this season by getting Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth into the Chase. These three drivers seldom were competing for the win as the final laps went off the board but they were always hanging around the top-10. Biffle has managed to win two races while Edwards and Kenseth are winless on the season. The difference was those finishes inside the top-10 as all three have posted more than McMurray.
Even though there are still five races left in the season, the 2011 season is just four months away and few other drivers will enter the new season with the momentum that McMurray and his team have going for them at this moment. They already have the reputation of coming up big in marquee races on the schedule, now it’s a matter bringing the same intensity and effort to every race. If they can do that, this time next year they should be in the Chase competing for the title.
We continue to see empty seats and sinking TV ratings, but the racing has been great during the first five races of the Chase. NASCAR’s problems with putting people in the stands and TV’s tuned to the race has nothing to do with what the Chase drivers are doing on the track. Sure, Jimmie Johnson is in his familiar spot on top of the standings, but it could be there is still plenty of racing left before this year’s champion is crowned.
Johnson has a 41-point lead over Denny Hamlin with five races remaining, and the history of the Chase tells us that being first at this point definitely points toward the title. In four of the last six Chases, the leader after five races has gone on to win the championship. What about those other two years? In 2006, Jimmie Johnson was 146 points out of the top spot with five races remaining, but put together an unbelievable five-race span that saw him capture the title. The next year, Johnson was 68 points out of the lead but was able to make up the points on his way to another title.
All of that is good news for Hamlin, as he has to like his chances with the five races that are still on the board. He won the spring race at Martinsville, next up on the schedule, and has a fourthplace finish earlier in the year at Talladega, which follows. The third race remaining is at Texas, and all Hamlin did there back in April was to take his Toyota to victory lane.
That leaves Phoenix and Homestead as the two remaining races. Hamlin finished 30th at Phoenix, but that was the week after his surgery for a torn ACL. Homestead Miami is the final race of the season and he won there last year.
Hamlin couldn’t want a better stretch of races to end with, but Johnson will have to be beaten, as he is not in the habit of giving away the title.
Tums Bring It On 500
(.526 mile oval, 12 degrees of banking
in the turns)
Oct. 24, 1p.m.