After 11 seasons of playoff-free toil, Jamie McMurray admitted that it was “cool” when he qualified for last season’s Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup for the first time.
Only a year later, it’s not enough.
Although McMurray — who has been a full-time Sprint Cup driver since 2003, the year before NASCAR instituted the Chase format — validated his breakthrough with a second straight playoff berth this season, he’s far from satisfied.
“I’m thrilled we made it, but it’s not just about making the Chase,” said McMurray, who topped $70 million in career earnings this season. “The reason you’re so thrilled about making the Chase is because you feel like you have a chance to contend for a championship.”
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McMurray, who was eliminated from the 2016 Chase in the first three-race segment after engine trouble at Dover International Speedway, watched for more than a decade as the sport’s top drivers battled it out for championships.
His ultra-competitive side and driving acumen showed in the fact that McMurray is tied with Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart for the most career victories in Chase races by a driver not involved in that season’s playoff with three.
“You race for the win every week,” said McMurray, a Joplin, Mo., native. “Nobody shows up and says, ‘Man, I hope I can get fifth.’ ”
Unfortunately for McMurray, who hasn’t won since the fall 2013 race at Talladega Superspeedway, simply returning to Victory Lane and snapping a 106-race winless drought is the only remaining goal within reach this season.
He’ll try for another such victory Sunday during the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.
Chip Ganassi Racing, which sponsors two Sprint Cup cars, qualified both drivers for the Chase this season, but McMurray and teammate Kyle Larson were both knocked out during the first elimination.
“It’s a goal that everyone sets out at the beginning of the year to make the Chase,” McMurray said. “It’s a big deal for our organization to have both cars in the Chase, which is something our organization had never done before.”
Still, McMurray, who turned 40 in June, wants more and hopes he can return to next season’s Chase and advance past the first round for the first time.
“You hope you can put some races together and make it all happen,” McMurray said. “I’ll promise you everyone from Kevin Harvick to Chris Buescher thinks they have a chance when the Chase begins. If they don’t, you should probably find something else to do.”
McMurray was something of a phenom as younger driver, winning his second career race as a fill-in for Sterling Marlin in 2002 and since notching several big wins. He also feels like he’s continuing to improve as a driver.
“The one thing that for me has changed is I feel like I’m able to finish a little better than where I’ve run throughout the race,” McMurray said. “That’s something I think the best guys are able to do.”
No matter how competitive his car is for a particular race, if McMurray can finish better than his average running position, then he feels like he’s overachieved.
“I feel like I’ve been able to do a better job of that the last few years than ever,” McMurray said.
It’s a start, but McMurray is still far from finished.