Biggest NASCAR surprise? How about Jamie McMurray

There have been numerous surprises in this Sprint Cup season. Mark Martin, who was so strong in 2009, is winless heading into this weekend’s Emory Healthcare 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, watching his hopes of making the Chase slip away with just two races left before the start of the 10-race championship run.

His Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Dale Earnhardt Jr., continues to struggle despite some beefing up of his No. 88 race team.

But the biggest surprise of this season is the strong performance by Jamie McMurray and his No. 1 Chevrolet team at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

A year ago, McMurray was the odd man out when Roush Fenway Racing had to drop one of its five Cup drivers to meet the NASCAR limit of four. Many in the sport had considered Ganassi’s team in disarray. It has lost Martin Truex Jr. and the downsizing of the old Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Ganassi’s team had left them just two cars, the other driven by Juan Pablo Montoya.

But McMurray, who had driven for Ganassi before leaving to drive for Roush, won the sport’s biggest race, the Daytona 500, in his first time back with his old team. Then he won NASCAR’s second biggest race, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Along the way he won poles at Auto Club Speedway, Darlington and Chicagoland, recorded runner-up finishes at Talladega, Darlington and Charlotte and had a third-place finish in the most recent Cup event, the night race at Bristol.

He comes to Atlanta 100 points shy of a berth in the Chase, knowing he's had a spectacular season even if he misses the cut for the championship run.

“I'm really fortunate this year that we were able to win those two big races because if we don't make the Chase, it's not going to be devastating,” he said in his post-race interview at Bristol. “I want to make the Chase, but there's nothing you can do. But [there are] two races left; a lot can happen. And certainly Atlanta is one of those tracks that, man, you can really have a good car there [or] you can really miss it and be three laps down. So we'll just have to wait and see.”

One key factor in McMurray's resurgence is that the team’s engines come from a cooperative effort between his team and Richard Childress Racing, both of which have reversed their fortunes from a year ago. And McMurray and Ganassi seem to have learned from their struggles in previous seasons.

“Is it surreal? Yes,” Ganassi said after McMurray won at Indianapolis, giving him car owner victories in the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. “From where we were a while back, people had Jamie written off. People had us written off.

“But I think what I said once before: a semester at sea for Jamie. He couldn't have come back a better person. We had grown as a team and he had grown as a driver. We picked up where we left off, I think. And I'm really happy about that.”

McMurray said his turnaround is a sign that chemistry between driver, owner, sponsor and crew is critical to success.

“I think it's just a situation where you’ve got to get the guys in the right position with the right crew chief and the right team and the right owner,” he said, adding that the chemistry between he and Ganassi is better because of their shared struggles.

“I think it's been really good for both Chip and I to experience all of this together, because we were together when things weren't great and we kind of built this together, along with the [No. 1] team, to where it is. It's made me really appreciate Bass Pro Shops, McDonald's, everyone that is a part of our race team. When you're a part of an organization that just has sponsors knocking the doors down, I don't think that the drivers appreciate that as much as they should. For me to go through what I went through, it makes me really, really appreciate what we have.”