For most of his career, Jamie McMurray has been derided as a pretty boy, frosted tips and soft voice and tears and all that. He's been the safe public face of NASCAR, appearing on soap operas and in movies -- remember Ricky Bobby encouraging him to visit Target? -- and, in short, looking to be about as far from the legend of Dale Earnhardt as you could be and still be on the track.
But here's the thing. Somewhere along the way -- while racing for the current iteration of Earnhart's own team, no less -- McMurray has turned into one of the sport's better drivers. He's won three of the sport's biggest races in the last year -- the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Talladega fall race -- and last Saturday night at Bristol, he overcame a pit road penalty to finish third.
That's not the kind of thing you luck into, folks. McMurray is on the verge of breaking through big. He's posted four top-six finishes in his last six races. The big problem for McMurray is that when he doesn't run well, he runs really badly -- not, like, mid-teens bad, but mid-30s bad. He's 34 -- not young, certainly, but in a Mark Martin-era world, he's got more than a decade of potential racing ahead of him, time enough to try to pave over those potholes that have put him 100 points out of the Chase despite two wins and nine top-10s this year.
But as Scene Daily notes, McMurray -- and, one point behind him, Mark Martin -- faces a tough hill to climb to get into the Chase. Only four drivers have fought from outside the Chase to get in with two races remaining -- Martin, Kasey Kahne, Jeremy Mayfield, and Matt Kenseth twice. But the greatest margin overcome was 90 points, and Kahne did that by winning and placing third in 2006. And all Clint Bowyer has to do is finish seventh or better in both races, and it's over, even if McMurray wins both.
Bottom line, McMurray may not make the Chase this year, but if he and his team can figure out what worked this year and replicate it in 2011, the pool of Chase-worthy drivers will grow by one. That's bad news for Kahne, Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya, among others -- Chase-level drivers who fell short this year -- but very good news indeed for people who want more competition throughout the season.