Remember the old posters of a cat dangling from a tree limb with its claws, with the caption, “Hang In There”?
That was Jamie McMurray a few weeks ago. He had been just barely clinging to the ledge in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup standings. He was the 16th of 16 drivers to earn a playoff spot and entered the Round of 12 as the 12th driver.
But with Sunday’s Alabama 500 at Talladega Superspeedway looming, McMurray is doing a little more than hanging in.
A fifth-place run at Charlotte last Sunday has vaulted him to eighth in the standings. Meaning, if the standings aren’t shuffled in the next two races, he’d be the eighth driver moving into the Round of 8.
“It’s almost like you’re back to even with everybody from where you started, from a little bit of a deficit,” McMurray said. “We’ve run really well on all the mile-and-a-halfs this year, so I feel like this round was better for us because of the two mile-and-a-halfs (Charlotte and then Kansas, on Oct. 22). And Talladega is such a wild card — that’s what everybody calls it — you have no idea what you’re going to have. You can lead a ton of the race and not finish well.”
McMurray, a 41-year-old Missourian who drives the No. 1 Cessna Chevrolet, has seven career wins, but has been almost numbingly consistent. That’s symbolized by one stat: His average starting spot has been 18.1. His average finishing spot has been 18.1.
This is his third consecutive year in the playoffs, which is both indicative of getting better with age and, mostly, the improvements and synergy at Chip Ganassi Racing. He now has an impressive teammate in Kyle Larson, who replaced Juan Pablo Montoya in 2014 and has become a rising star.
“It’s been a really good year” for McMurray, who has been in the top 10 in half the races, four of those coming in the last six starts.
There is an awareness of the points standings, but McMurray is like most of the contending drivers who refuse to obsess over the number and instead let things play out.
“I don’t think anybody pays attention … until the first stage is over, and you take the flag and you can see the scoring pylon and everyone looks over at who’s in the top 10 and you identify the guys you’re racing,” he said. “Then when the next stage starts, you don’t pay attention. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to keep up with.”
The stage racing that was initiated this season “has completely changed (restrictor plate) racing,” McMurray said. “At Talladega if you can win the first two stages and you get in a wreck in the last one, you’ve still got 20 points. You might score as many points as the guy who finishes fifth. The stages have been best for those type tracks.”
Case in point: Last spring at ’Dega, where Denny Hamlin won the second stage, finished 11th … but registered the same points as the runner-up. Who happened to be McMurray.
McMurray has two wins at Talladega — of the remaining 12 contenders, only Brad Keselowski has more — and that gives him a skoosh of confidence though it’s often been a place where “I contend to win or I didn’t finish,” he said.
“It all goes in swings and I just hope that we’re able to put together another good weekend at Talladega,” he said. “I feel good about Charlotte and going to Kansas.
“And,” he added, “if we can get a little lucky at Talladega, it’ll be a really good round.”