RICHMOND, Va. – Breathing room for Jamie McMurray? Yes.
Breathing easily? Not until the Chip Ganassi Racing driver qualifies for his second consecutive Chase for the Sprint Cup.
“Until you’re locked in, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve (seemed) locked in in this, and I wasn’t when it was over.”
That task became significantly less difficult with the 15-point penalty Wednesday to Ryan Newman, McMurray’s closest pursuer in the points battle for the final playoff spot. McMurray’s cushion grew from 7 to 22 points entering Saturday night’s Federated Auto Parts 400, but he said between Friday practices at RIR that it essentially wouldn’t change anything for his No. 1 Chevrolet.
“I’m not going to do anything different,” he said. “I’m just going to race the way we have all year long. I feel my style of racing is somewhat conservative anyway to get the best finish out of it that you can. That’s what’s put us in this position. So we’ve got a really good car, too, so that’s going to make it easier.
“I feel like our car is better than normal here in practice, and this has been a good track for me.”
When he learned of Newman’s penalty for failing postrace inspection for the Southern 500, McMurray said his reaction was more empathy than elation. In 2014, his team lost 50 points (under a different championship structure) because of an early season deck-lid infraction that effectively proved the difference in missing the playoffs.
“It’s really unfortunate that it happened the week before the Chase,” he said. “Because when it happens six weeks ago, you don’t look at it. I’ve been that guy. It was 50 points, which is probably the equivalent of what he got. I got my deck lid taken away at Bristol and that cost me making it in, so I’ve been on both sides of it.”
He also has been in this situation with Newman before – twice.
In the inaugural Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2004, McMurray trailed the cutoff spot by 25 points and finished 15 points behind Newman. The following season, McMurray entered the cutoff race at RIR with a one-point lead on Newman for the final spot … and missed qualifying after a crash with 37 laps remaining.
McMurray said he hardly takes anything from those experiences into Richmond.
“It was a different time,” he said. “Back then, it seemed like brakes were an issue when you came to Richmond. Engines obviously were an issue, and they still can be, but not as much.”
Besides McMurray, who will make his 500th Sprint Cup start Saturday, said he barely remembers those races, much less his last start at Richmond in April.
“When I showed up, and they had that 500th start sticker on my car, I’m blown away by that,” he said. “You’re only as old as you feel. Out of my eyes, I still feel like one of the kids in the garage, until I see some of the social media that some of the younger drivers put on, and I’m like, ‘That’s pretty corny.’
“No, I’m old is what that means. But I don’t look back at any of that.”
Ganassi’s focus has been on the future and possibly qualifying two cars for the playoffs for the first time. Kyle Larson, McMurray’s teammate, clinched a Chase berth two weeks ago with his first career win at Michigan International Speedway.
“It’s a great vibe,” McMurray said. “I feel like as an organization we’ve made bigger steps this year than any other team. It’s really hard to start where we did and end up where we are right now with cars that are capable of winning. They’ve done a phenomenal job.
“That’s a goal we set out at the beginning of the year. Everyone wants to win a race, you want to win a pole and be in the Chase. Last year, getting to be a part of it, I told my wife as much as I dread everything that goes along with being in the Chase, the media obligations and all the other crap, I really want to be part of it again, because it was something really special last year. I remember Jeff Gordon, when I got ready to go on the stage for the Chase after the race, he said, ‘This is just really special, you’re really going to enjoy this.’ Honestly, I didn’t quite get it. But now this year heading into it, I do.”