It was 10 degrees outside during a winter day in Charlotte, N.C., but things were about to heat up for Jamie McMurray and his crew.
McMurray, 38, who is visiting Kansas Speedway this weekend with the rest of the Sprint Cup Series, is racing with his third crew chief in the last three seasons and wanted to build some camaraderie among his team, the No. 1 McDonald’s Chevrolet owned by Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
So McMurray rented out an indoor go-kart track and invited his Sprint Cup Series support staff and their significant others for an afternoon of light-hearted fun.
“Everybody that’s a part of the (No.) 1 team — pit crew, their wives, the road guys and their wives and girlfriends — everybody went,” said McMurray, a native of Joplin, Mo. “We rented the track out for three or four hours and they set up little heat races. Whoever was the fastest from each heat race, we ran a final. It was really fun.”
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Team chemistry is important in any sport, but that’s especially true during the 10-month grind of the NASCAR season.
It’s not that McMurray’s past teams lacked chemistry, but morale has never been higher around his team this season, and it’s not a big stretch to connect back to that winter afternoon of bragging-rights battles.
“I don’t think that’s the reason you have success,” McMurray said. “We have success because our cars are really good and the depth of the whole team from the bottom to the top. … But when you spend as many weeks on the road as we all do together, being able to get along is key. It’s a big part of it. Everybody likes each other and they all get along. They’re all pulling the rope the same direction, and there’s no bad apples.”
That go-kart outing did wonders in terms of bringing McMurray together with his support staff.
“We all just sat around and talked about where we came from and how we ended up where we are,” McMurray said. “Most everyone knows my story, because if you’ve followed racing you kind of know that, but it was really nice for me to get to know everyone else’s story. The coolest part of it was our stories are all the same.
“We all grew up racing at a young age in go-karts and most everyone on our team moved up from there to some other type of racing, whether it’s a sprint car or a late model. Maybe it didn’t work out for them, so instead of being a driver they decided to work on a team. But we’re all pretty much alike.”
It wasn’t an afternoon without risk.
After all, McMurray might lose some credibility if he got beat by a crew member in a race. So, who took the checkered flag at the go-kart track?
“I did, of course,” McMurray said. “But I’ll tell you what, in our group there was some really fast guys. It wasn’t like I significantly faster than any of the others, because everyone grew up racing and kind of has those skills.”
McMurray burst onto the scene as a fill-in for Sterling Marlin in 2012 after he was injured in a crash at Kansas Speedway.
During his second Sprint Cup race, McMurray won at Charlotte. Two years later, driving full-time for Chip Ganassi, McMurray claimed 23 top-10 finishes in 36 races. He won three of his seven career Sprint Cup races in 2010.
But for all McMurray’s success, including victories at the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 as well as last summer’s NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, he’s never qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Perhaps that breakthrough is coming.
After opening the season with wrecks at Daytona and Atlanta, McMurray has stormed up the Sprint Cup standings by finishing second at Phoenix, sixth at Texas and fourth at Richmond.
He’s currently in seventh place based on points but would love to virtually assure himself a spot in the Chase with a victory Saturday in the SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway, his hometown track.
“That’s been a good track for me and I’m looking forward to getting back there,” McMurray said. “It’s kind of where I grew up. It’s always nice to be able to come back, and you run into people that you haven’t seen in 10 years. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but it’s always fun.”
McMurray’s average starting position of 13.2 this year is the best during his 13 full-time seasons, and his average finish of 14.6 is the second-highest career mark — and best since 2004.
“I feel like we’re going to be able to win a race before the Chase gets here, because we’ve run so well at a lot of different-type tracks,” McMurray said. “Even if we don’t, we’re running well enough that we should be able to point our way in, depending on how many winners there are.”