By the slimmest of margins, Jamie McMurray was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup on Oct. 4 despite a fourth-place finish at Dover International Speedway.
He finished in a tie for 12th place in the Challenger Round standings, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. — by virtue of his third-place finish at Dover — won the tiebreaker for the final transfer spot into the Contender Round.
Of course, that wasn’t even the worst part of McMurray’s day.
His niece, Lauren Montez, who inspired the Jamie McMurray Foundation to partner with Autism Speaks in an effort to raise awareness and research funds about the disorder, died that day.
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It added up to a rotten end to an otherwise breakthrough season in some respects.
McMurray long ago established himself as a clutch and capable driver.
He burst onto the scene in 2002 as a fill-in for Sterling Marlin, winning his second career Sprint Cup start.
McMurray collected 23 top-10 finishes in 36 races in 2004, his second full season driving for Chip Ganassi Racing.
He took his reputation as an up-and-comer to new level by winning the 2010 Daytona 500, his second career victory at hallowed Daytona International Speedway, and claiming the checkered flag later that season during the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
McMurray further burnished that resume with a victory in the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup All-Star Race, but until last month he’d never qualified for the Chase for Sprint Cup.
“It’s important to be in the Chase,” McMurray said during a test at Kansas Speedway in September. “It’s important to our partners, and it’s probably the number one goal that every race team since the beginning of the year is to make it into the Chase.”
Now, perhaps McMurray will gain new stature as a legitimate championship contender. He learned some hard lessons during his first Chase experience, but it’s bound to make him a better driver.
“It’s really cool to get to be a part of it,” McMurray said.
But his elimination from title contention doesn’t mean McMurray has nothing left to race for this season.
“It’s a great accomplishment to make the Chase, but certainly being able to go to Victory Lane is what you want to ultimately be able to do,” McMurray said.
It’s been 71 races since McMurray, a Joplin, Mo., native, won a regular-season race during the second go at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013.
No doubt, claiming the checkered flag Sunday in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway would restore the positive vibe for the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevy team.