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The one consistent thing Jamie McMurray has shown this season is when he shows up at the big tracks – you know, the ones with the rich history – he's going to race for the win.
The winner of the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 found his way to victory lane at Charlotte, giving him his career-best third win of the season. Prior to 2010, his first year of his second go-around with Chip Ganassi Racing, McMurray had a grand total of three wins in seven full seasons.
After an unfulfilling first stint with Ganassi, and then an unsuccessful run with Roush Fenway Racing, McMurray has finally found his groove.
"I get asked the question a lot of what's different here versus Roush … and I never really had an answer for it," he said. "But I have thought about it a lot, and I think the difference is that we don't run the same stuff as [teammate Juan Pablo Montoya], and it doesn't matter what they have. We do what we feel is right for our team, and we stray away from maybe what they have every once in awhile and we do what's best for us.
"That wasn't something that you could really do at Roush. You had to kind of stay within the bubble or not get out of the box, because if you did, you got chastised after the race. So we just do what's right for us, and I think that's what makes the biggest difference."
It's worked wonders for McMurray, who if not for some consistency issues would be in the Chase (and doing pretty well in it, probably ranked around third or fourth). When he runs well, he runs very well. In addition to the victories, McMurray has five finishes of second or third in the biggest races on the schedule – the Southern 500, the Coca-Cola 600, the Bristol night race and at Talladega.
The big ones this year, but next year he'll likely compete everywhere.
And that's going to make McMurray a championship contender.
Here's what else went down this weekend in Charlotte:
1. Crying foul over cautions
A pair of late cautions drastically altered both races at Charlotte Motor Speedway this weekend, and the drivers most affected by the flags were none too happy about NASCAR's meddling in the outcome.
In Friday night's Nationwide race, NASCAR had to call a caution to correct a mistake it made when it penalized Brian Scott for a loose lug nut. Only there was no loose lug nut, and the yellow flag allowed Scott to reclaim his original spot in line.
It also ruined Harvick's strategy.
"I've never seen such a thing in my whole life," Harvick seethed after the race. "That's like stopping the game in the middle of a play and saying, 'We're going to start over.' "
In the Sprint Cup race Saturday night, NASCAR threw a caution for debris with 26 laps remaining and Busch leading. The yellow bunched up the field, put Jamie McMurray next to Busch for a final restart, and ultimately cost Busch the victory.
His reaction to the caution and subsequent restart isn't printable in most publications, and he seemed to doubt the validity of the debris even after he'd calmed down.
"I don't know what the caution was for," he said after finishing second. "You know, apparently there was a mouse that ran across the racetrack or something."
NASCAR doesn't often get the benefit of the doubt on debris cautions from drivers or fans who usually suspect the sanctioning body is tossing the yellow for no other reason than to manufacture a tight race. Debris cautions tend to appear when the leader has run away from the field or late in races when a caution can set up a more dramatic ending. Although NASCAR often gets accused of shenanigans, there's little merit to the idea that phantom debris is spotted about the same time Dale Earnhardt Jr. is about to be lapped.
Regardless, these ill-timed "show cautions" have a tendency to anger a driver or two, and it even cost Denny Hamlin a cool $50,000 when NASCAR fined him for criticizing cautions on Twitter.
I often get accused of defending NASCAR on too many issues. Still, I can't see how the sport's leaders could sit above the race track and devise schemes to manipulate the races.
NASCAR of old? Sure, anything is possible.
But it's so risky in the present day because, as is, the faith and trust in NASCAR's leaders is so shaky. So few fans believe that president Mike Helton and crew make factual, lawful rulings, and instead believe everything has a sinister motive behind the decision.
In the case of the late cautions at Charlotte, they were under very different circumstances. The yellow flag in the Nationwide race corrected a wrong, and while everybody would have preferred the mistake had never been made, fixing it with the caution was the only thing NASCAR could do to maintain any sort of integrity.
The Cup issue is more complex because nobody but the drivers and the NASCAR officials can accurately gauge if the debris warranted a caution. Busch is, of course, going to think it was bogus because it cost him a victory. But did calling it actually improve the finish enough that putting its credibility on the line was worth it for NASCAR?
The answer to that question is no. McMurray quickly got past Busch and sailed away to the win, leaving Busch's rant – he pretty much covered George Carlin's seven words you can never say on TV – the most exciting action over the closing laps.
TV showed the debris on Busch's caution, and it was in the lower groove. From their spots in the tower, NASCAR officials felt it was legitimate.
That should be enough for everyone to accept. Well, everyone except Busch.
2. Kasey Kahne can't wait for the season to end
Because when it does, he'll be out the door at Richard Petty Motorsports.
The pairing hit yet another rough spot Saturday night when, after his brakes failed, Kahne said he was too ill to continue the race in his damaged Ford. J.J. Yeley completed the race in Kahne's car.
Kahne ran a 5k for his charity Sunday morning in downtown Charlotte, finishing that race and smiling after, saying that his stomach was still upset. He said he threw up once Saturday night and didn't feel the need to put forth the effort to get back in a car that didn't meet his standards.
Kahne said it was the third time this season his brakes had failed, and second time in three races. He admitted to melting down on the radio, which led many to speculate he refused to get back in the car after his crew made repairs.
"I lost it. I was just mad. I came into the race thinking we had a shot to win, thinking we had a good car in practice, we had a good shot," he said. "It went green. We were a little bit tight, but still actually passed cars and really felt good, and then boom, my brakes are gone.
"It's not like you have half-brakes, like you can pump them. Your foot goes to the floor. It bottoms out. It's a joke."
Kahne is leaving RPM at the end of the year for a one-season stop at Red Bull Racing before his jump in 2012 to Hendrick Motorsports. He confirmed crew chief Kenny Francis will be moving to Red Bull with him, and although the move can't happen fast enough, Kahne is doubtful he'll be in a Toyota before the end of the season.
But it wouldn't be a huge surprise if something were to be worked out to get Kahne in the No. 83 in any of the final five races. The relationship is pretty much severed at RPM, evidenced by an exchange with one of his team members Kahne recounted Sunday morning.
"I was told I needed to start doing my part, is what one guy told me last night after the race, and I told him he needs to do his part," Kahne said. "I mean, I can't control the issues I've had this year. I don't know how many parts I've broken, how many shifter handles, control arms, brakes. If I really thought about it, I could come up with all kinds of stuff.
"I can't control that as a driver. I'm doing my part. I just need the car."
3. Jeff Gordon had high hopes for Charlotte
But those were dashed rather quickly, and so were his championship chances.
Gordon finished 23rd because of myriad bad breaks. His alternator failed, he got popped for speeding and lost more ground to a loose tire. The finish dropped Gordon 156 points behind teammate Jimmie Johnson in the standings.
Gordon said his deficit won't change his approach.
"All I can tell you is that it doesn't make us race any different," he said. "We race to win every weekend. So that's all we can continue to do going forward. Things are not looking good, but we'll just keep going and get to the next one and see what happens."
Time to win a title this season has probably run out for Gordon, who is stuck in a career-worst 60-race winless streak. His season had promise through the first few months when, despite an inability to get to victory lane, he still managed to run up front and come awfully close to grabbing a few wins.
But he's faded from the front of late, and although he's not been terrible in the Chase, he's not been good enough to win the title.
Gordon was buoyed by his pole-winning run at Charlotte on Thursday only to see a mediocre day dash his hopes. He couldn't help but look ahead after it was over.
"I'm looking forward to going to Martinsville," Gordon said.
A seven-time Martinsville winner, it could be Gordon's last shot this season to end his losing streak.
4. So much for Tony Stewart
His win at California made everyone believe he was back in the title hunt. But that blew up early in what turned into a very long night at Charlotte.
When teammate Ryan Newman spun on the second lap, Stewart's attempt to avoid getting mixed up in the mess led to Stewart getting hit by another driver. He had to pit on three consecutive laps and had dropped to 39th by the restart.
But the car wasn't good enough for Stewart to make up any ground on the track, and trouble entering his pit box cut into his attempt to make gains on pit road.
"It was just a comedy of errors," crew chief Darian Grubb said. "We evidently just missed it on the setup. Not really sure what happened; we just weren't fast enough on restarts or anything. Then mid-run we could be OK, but by the end we had no track position. We had to fight to try to get track position all night and just never got it.
"Anytime we had a hope that we were getting somewhere, we got stuck in our pits two or three times, or missed our pit box or something. It was just a mess."
Tied with Kyle Busch for fifth in the standings, 177 points out, the championship is over for Stewart. He'll still try to win races, and that can make it interesting down the stretch, but he and Grubb will have to figure out why the Chase has gone wrong for a second straight year.
5. An eighth-place finish wasn't too bad for Kevin Harvick
Considering Charlotte is his worst Chase track, a top-10 finish had to feel like a victory.
Only it didn't sound that way during the race, when Harvick consistently chastised his Richard Childress Racing team for its performance. He told his crew they were watching the championship slip away, insisted he didn't have a car capable of passing anyone and didn't have a pit crew capable of completing a flawless stop.
Despite all his perceived problems, he was pleased at the end of the race.
"I'm really happy. Everybody knows that has been our big struggle. Our goal was to come in here and get a single-digit finish and we did that," he said. "The guys fought all night. I screamed and complained and the pit crew had a bad stop on the first one, then they were great the rest of the night. Hopefully that is something we can build on going forward."
With some of his best Chase tracks still to come – Talladega, Phoenix, Homestead – Harvick should still like his chances even though he's 77 points behind Johnson.
"I think for us [Charlotte] was damage control," he said. "To come out of here with an eighth feels like a victory."