Charlotte special coup for McMurray, non-Chasers

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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There is a simple answer as to what drivers who are not in the Chase field of 12 can do to get attention: Jamie McMurray provided it Saturday night in Charlotte.

Win.

Jamie McMurray improves his bargaining position with Chip Ganassi. (AP)  
Jamie McMurray improves his bargaining position with Chip Ganassi. (AP)  
But stealing the spotlight is something McMurray has made a habit of this year. He started the year winning the Daytona 500, added a trip to victory lane in the Brickyard 400 and Saturday night took the thunder out of the Chase proceedings by taking the checkered flag at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

To say it has been a dream season for McMurray, who won his first career Cup race at Charlotte eight years ago, is an understatement. In fact McMurray sees his year as a whole lot more.

His emotional reaction to winning at Daytona is still the topic of conversation in some circles, but McMurray says it was a deep reaction to his prayers being answered.

"I wanted people to understand that sometimes you see people's emotions on TV, and I don't know, I just wanted it to be understood that after the season that I had, or the last four years I had, I found the power of prayer and that it's something that I really believe in," said McMurray, who celebrated his Charlotte win with his father at his side.

"And when I got to Victory Lane in Daytona, that's what I was thinking about. You know, I was crying, obviously because I was happy, but also because you feel like a prayer has been answered."

McMurray believes he has changed greatly since bursting onto the Sprint Cup scene in 2002 when he filled in for an injured Sterling Marlin and drove his car to the Charlotte win. Part of that growth is simply believing in himself -- and his race team.

"Obviously I've grown up a lot in the last eight years. I'm married and expecting a child," he said. "My life has changed a lot. I feel like I'm a lot smarter of a racer and I try to put myself in a better position probably than what I did back then.

"Certainly quite a bit different as a person and a lot different place in my life. And I think probably more than anything is I'm appreciative of the sponsors and of the opportunities that I have right now versus 2002."

That opportunity is a reunion with team owner Chip Ganassi, who McMurray started his Sprint Cup career with before leaving for Roush Fenway Racing. The combination of McMurray and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has been stellar, but there's no long-term plan in place to keep things together, not yet anyway.

"I can't remember Chip's exact answer but I think when it's ready to talk about that, I'll talk about that -- just kidding," said McMurray smiling about contact negotiations.

With his performance this season, McMurray should believe in his future with the team.

Fast five

 The Chase reached the halfway point and what many believed would be the most wide-open championship run in recent history sure isn't looking that way. While Jimmie Johnson increased his points lead to 41 over Denny Hamlin, a good portion of the Chase field separated itself from the leader in the opposite direction. Kurt Busch, Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart all had bad nights. Only Hamlin and Kevin Harvick remain within 100 points of the top spot.

 Although Chase drivers claimed six of the first 10 finishing positions, many outside the title race grabbed more than their moment in the sun Saturday night. McMurray's win, of course, drew headlines, but not to be overlooked were Joey Logano, David Reutimann and David Ragan finding their way among the first 10 across the finish line. Mark Martin followed his top five in Fontana by running up front and leading early Saturday night, and McMurray's teammate Juan Pablo Montoya came home 11th. They may not be running for a championship, but Saturday night had to be satisfying for that group.

 Kasey Kahne was anything but satisfied after getting caught up in a Lap 124 incident with Sam Hornish Jr. Kahne reportedly was furious with his team for providing a less-than-competitive race car and left the track, forcing Richard Petty Motorsports to put J.J. Yeley behind the wheel to finish the race when the car was repaired. While the official word was that Kahne was feeling ill, sources report major tension between the driver and the organization, which will bear watching during the final five races before they part ways.

 The only night race in the Chase drew a crowd of about 100,000 on a cool and crisp fall evening at Charlotte. That number is about on par with previous fall Cup races at the track, which traditionally aren't as large as what Charlotte draws for its May events. But the more important numbers will come from the night's television ratings, which NASCAR hopes will reverse the trend of the first four Chase races: significant audience declines from 2009. Saturday night's race in prime time was carried by ABC rather than ESPN, so it will be interesting to see how a broadcast vs. cable telecast impacts the ratings number.

Sprint Cup Series

 New nosepieces will make their debut in the Sprint Cup Series in 2011, with the next generation Nationwide Series car a definite inspiration. The new front splitter for the Chevrolet Impalas and Toyota Camrys is molded to the front of the car instead of held to the front bumper with braces. Ford and Dodge are working on their versions; those are said to provide much better manufacturer and brand identity than the current generic look to the Cup car. First tests for all four new looks will come when Daytona plays host to the Sprint Cup Series for three days next January.

Speed sounds

"We'll just keep plugging along and see what happens after Talladega. I really feel like after Talladega we can then be in a position to protect or know if we have to play catch up at that point." -- Jimmie Johnson

"Yeah, it was not a lot of fun. We had about everything go wrong that could go wrong." -- Jeff Gordon

"I really don't have anything to talk about. We're close. Working on a multiyear deal with everybody" -- Jamie McMurray on a contract extension with EGR.

"We gotta find something. It ain't no better than what we've been doing, but we've just got to keep looking." -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. on his 29th-place finish.

Charging ahead

Kyle Busch: Had a fast race car, led the most laps of the night and battled through a throttle issue that threatened to end his chance at winning early in the race. Busch stayed with it and even though he didn't win, a second place through the adversity is what builds championship-caliber teams.

Jimmie Johnson: Speaking of building championship-caliber teams through adversity, Johnson was that and then some Saturday night, soldiering back from an early race spin. At one point, Johnson was 37th in the standings only to claw his way back up front and finish third, actually adding to his points lead on a night when it appeared the title race could have easily been turned upside down.

Joey Logano: He's starting to put together more consistent finishes and showing the promise so many saw in the young driver. The final five races will be a major test for Logano's third season, and if he can keep the steady runs coming, it will go a long way in setting him up for what could be a Chase campaign in 2011.

Downshifting

Kurt Busch: So dominant in May when he won the All-Star Race and Coca-Cola 600 and a complete non-factor Saturday night. Busch spun racing through Turns 3 and 4 and never recovered to finish a Chaser-worst 30th.

Jeff Gordon: After winning the pole Thursday night, Gordon became a favorite to win and finally end his drought. But once an electrical problem hit the No. 24 team, Gordon's night went down the drain with a pit road speeding penalty compounding the problems and adding up to a 23rd-place finish.

Tony Stewart: Rode high into Charlotte after his Fontana victory a week ago and shot himself in the foot right from the start Saturday night when he spun to avoid an incident. Stewart never recovered and squandered his big move up the standings last Sunday by finishing a dismal 21st.

Sneak peek

The Chase goes short track racing with next week's return visit to tiny Martinsville Speedway for Sunday's TUMS Fast Pain Relief 500.

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