Jamie McMurray: NASCAR’s Most Underrated Driver?

Speedweeks is still a few weeks off, but racing started at the Daytona International Speedway for 2015 with the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours, the curtain-raiser for the TUDOR United Sportscar Championship and featuring a host of international sportscar racing talent and machines competing across four classes of prototype and GT fields.

And the winning margin? About four seconds.

Yup. That’s all that separated Indycar stars Scott Dixon and Sebastian Bourdais at the flag, after 24 hours of epic racing and drama. The GTLM class was even closer, with another Indycar star Ryan Briscoe holding off Dirk Werner to snatch a priceless win for Corvette Racing – the cars were almost nose-to-tail as they crossed the stripe.

If you still believe sportscar racing to be a glorified long-distance time trial, you might want to have a rethink.

As far as NASCAR representation went, numbers were thin on the ground – but the drivers present gave a stirring account of themselves. AJ Allmendinger lit up the timing screens in his appearance with Michael Shank Racing, wringing the neck of their fast but fragile Ligier JS P2 car which swept all practice and qualifying sessions leading up to the event. Kyle Larson was similarly super-fast in only his second ever race in a sportscar, and ended up sweeping to victory lane in the #02 alongside Dixon, Tony Kanaan, and the third major Cup driver in the race; Jamie McMurray.

Yeah, him. The guy no-one ever seems to notice, or hype up, or celebrate as one of our greatest drivers. And yet as the checkered flag dropped and he celebrated with his teammates, he also made history – and joined an elite category of drivers who have won both of Daytona’s premier races, the 500 and the 24 Hours.

One populated only by AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti.

Illustrious company, no?

The fact is, McMurray’s career is a strange contradiction. In sheer numbers, it’s not that impressive – Eight Cup wins in 13 years isn’t the highest strike rate around. But look at each win individually. His first came in his second ever Sprint Cup start, in 2002 substituting for the injured Sterling Marlin. He took Rookie of the Year honors in 2003, in a class featuring Casey Mears and then-reigning Bush Series champion Greg Biffle. 2010 was a breakout year, with three wins – including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, making him only the third driver after Jimmie Johnson and Dale Jarrett to win both races in the same season. And then last year, amongst the hullabaloo of his hotshot teammate Kyle Larson’s rookie season, McMurray took out the All-Star race in commanding fashion to add another prestigious trophy to a cabinet now swelling with them – and one which will also now have a Rolex watch sitting inside.

So why has McMurray never really hit the limelight? Strange as it might be, NASCAR is a short attention span sport – even shorter than ever now with the new Chase format. With races every week, and eliminations every other week, big wins are forgotten about quicker than ever, and with McMurray often waiting multiple seasons between wins, it means hype and expectation never really flow towards him. Consistency has never quite been his strong point, with a best points finish of 11th in 2004. And as a personality, he’s always smiling and

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chipper – even in mediocre years you’ll never hear him raging at his crew chief or getting into feuds with other drivers. And whilst that’s great as a person, it often means larger-than-life characters around him hog the spotlight.

And yet, for the big occasion, there’s perhaps fewer better in the sport at stepping up to the plate and delivering.

The more I think about it, the more it occurs to me that McMurray is perhaps NASCAR’s equivalent of Jenson Button. He, like McMurray, is likeable, charming and very rarely prone to throwing toys out of the pram. He, like McMurray, is often underrated and glossed over when it comes to drawing up ‘best ever’ lists. But he, like McMurray, has won all the big races in F1, including the Monaco Grand Prix – as well as a World Drivers’ Championship. And you sense that he, like McMurray, is an asset that team owners absolutely love to have as part of their team. Both have managed to quietly excel even in the company of higher-rated teammates – Lewis Hamilton, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kyle Larson, etc – and both are excellent team players who help work on their cars and calmly and methodically get on with their craft. I’m willing to speculate one big reason why McLaren kept hold of Button for 2015 alongside Fernando Alonso, rather than youngster Kevin Magnussen, was his maturity and strength in developing cars. Such calm feedback is invaluable, and perhaps by the same token explains why McMurray was never in danger of departure from Ganassi in recent seasons despite an 108-race winless streak and a few poor seasons, and it’s almost certain that Larson’s seamless transition into Cup racing was helped in part by having McMurray as team-mate and leader.

Let’s not also forget the current Chase format we are playing under, which plays to McMurray’s strengths perfectly. It means he can afford to be patient, wait for his moment, and grab the win he needs to qualify for the Chase without having to worry too much about the odd inconsistent result here and there. And if that were to happen, I’d seriously fancy him to step up and deliver in the elimination rounds.

Because as I hope I’ve proven today; there’s few better in NASCAR or the wider sphere of motorsport at stepping up to the bigger occasion than Joplin, Missouri’s finest.