RICHMOND, Va. -- Toward the end of another slog of a season, there were no outward indications of improvement. The mid-pack results stacked one atop another, adding up to a second consecutive finish deep in the standings. But Jamie McMurray knew his team was testing and experimenting with setups. He knew his organization was adding equipment and building new cars for 2013.
And the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver believed all the effort would pay off -- eventually.
"A lot of times you try something, and maybe it doesn't give you the results you want, but it leads you down a path," McMurray said inside his transporter at Richmond International Raceway. "And I feel like that's what happened to us last year. A lot of the stuff we tried maybe didn't work instantly, but it led us down the right path to be where we are now."
Now, McMurray is 10th in the Sprint Cup Series standings, his highest ranking since he was fourth one week after winning the Daytona 500 in 2010. No question, the driver of the No. 1 car has benefitted from recent penalties that cost Matt Kenseth and Joey Logano positions in the standings, pending their respective appeals. But McMurray has also shown marked improvement on the race track, with already as many top-10 finishes as he recorded in all of last year.
Although Juan Pablo Montoya continues to struggle, McMurray's surge is the first tangible sign of progress for an EGR team that shuffled its front office before 2012, and switched to Hendrick Motorsports engines for the current campaign. Owner Chip Ganassi called it "pathetic" after Montoya and McMurray finished 22nd and 27th, respectively, two years ago. Last season wasn't much better. Through it all, the drivers preached patience, claiming the changes had been positive and good things were to come.
"I wouldn't have come here if it wasn't going to change," said EGR general manager Max Jones. "We worked really hard. Nobody ever thought it wouldn't work. ? It was just a matter of getting everyone pulling in the same direction. By no means are we there yet. We still have a lot of work to do. We're better than we were last year, and each week I feel like we're getting better. But we're not there yet. It will take a little longer."
In the case of the No. 42 team, that much seems clear. But McMurray has notched top-10s in three of his last five starts, and these days is looking more like the driver who won three races -- and likely would have made the Chase for the Sprint Cup had there been a Wild Card at the time -- in 2010. But he believes he's running even better now than he did then, in a campaign that netted wins in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400 and at Charlotte.
"We actually have run better this year than we did in 2010, when you would say we had a great year and won races," McMurray said. "Obviously, we didn't win the Daytona 500 this year, but my perspective is, we've run better at just about every other track than we did in 2010. I feel like when we get to tracks where historically I've run better at, then I think we'll contend to win races at that point."
What's been the difference? Jones said Ganassi brought in equipment like a seven-post rig. McMurray said all his cars are brand new. With the No. 1 team so deep in points toward the end of last season, McMurray's crew stepped up testing, and started toying with setups with an eye toward 2013. McMurray believes that's why his results late last year didn't show any outward progress, and why his cars have been so much faster out of the gate season.
"I feel really good about our cars. We've had more speed than we've ever had," McMurray said. "? Last year there were times where I thought we had a good car, and then they'd throw the green flag, and we were just in the way. So really I've been a little cautious of being optimistic because of last year. Every race, we just have had a lot of speed, and cars that drive well."
He believes the same is the case for Montoya, even though his teammate doesn't have the finishes to back it up. "The speed's there, the driver's there," Jones said of Montoya, who is 27th in points and without a top-10. "Everything's there. We just keep shooting ourselves in the foot. You can say it's bad luck, but I'm a big believer in you make your own luck. There were avoidable things, and we should have had better finishes."
McMurray is getting them, and the improved results are a tonic for a driver who endured plenty of frustration as his team tried to turn it around. His family helped -- when he got home from a race, McMurray said his wife, Christy, gave him about 30 seconds to vent, and they didn't talk about racing the rest of the week. But he still battled perceptions in the media and elsewhere over his finishes and whether he was the right driver for the job.
"That's probably the hardest part of not running well," McMurray said. "I guess because on the competition side, you know more about what's going on, and all the people that are involved in it with you understand and are maybe more sympathetic toward the result and why that is. But a lot of times people on the outside looking in, they look at where you finished, and that's it."
Of course, that doesn't mean 2012 was a picnic in the Ganassi shop. "It was brutal last year, it really was. It was painful," Jones said. "So from that standpoint, it feels better. I'm enjoying coming to the race track a lot more. Our Monday morning meetings are a lot better. I think the spirit around the shop, it's a lot better. ? Every once in a while when I'm on my tear, people remind me of where we were last year. It has gotten better."
Particularly for McMurray, who's still a little careful to get too excited over his best start in three years. Richmond, he admits, is a challenging track for him. Then there's Talladega, where despite his prowess on restrictor-plate tracks, anything can happen. But after that is Darlington, where he sat on the pole and finished second in 2010. Then there's Charlotte, where he's won twice. Summer brings road-course races and venues where McMurray has run historically well.
"For me personally, after four or five races, I started getting more confident each week when we came to the track," he said. "And you can't buy that. You can't make that happen. You just kind of have to earn it over time. I feel better now coming to the track than I have in a long time."
Get him to Darlington, and he might have some staying power. "I look at the next two (events) as being crucial," McMurray said. Regardless, he's beginning to believe. His cars are fast, his confidence is up, and he's hopeful of being able to sustain his promising start. And this time around, the improvement is obvious.
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