NASCAR: Jamie McMurray hones in on Chase, needs to finish the way he races

Jamie McMurray has already cashed a big check this season.

Now, he’d like to punch a ticket.

Time is running out.

McMurray surprised many by winning the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and its $1 million top prize at Charlotte Motor Speedway in May but with just two races remaining before the 16-driver championship Chase field is set, McMurray needs to earn his first points-paying race in the next two weeks to ensure a chance to compete for the Sprint Cup Series title.

He’ll start 15th in Sunday night’s Oral-B 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“You just race every single week to win. So even though we’re down to two races, it’s really not any different than it was at the Daytona 500, the first race of the year,” said McMurray, who is 16th in the series points standings.

“The goal is the same every week. You can’t really do anything different just because we’re down to two races.”

Each week he appears to be edging increasingly closer to Victory Lane.

Last weekend at Bristol, Tenn., McMurray led a race-high 138 laps and appeared in good shape to earn his first win of the season only to see a tight-handling car slow his momentum in the final 100 laps.

Still, McMurray led more laps in that one race than he had in the previous 22 races this season.

“I feel like really since, even before winning the All-Star race, that we’ve had great cars. We tend to run better than where we’ve finished,” he said. “I feel like after the last pit stop – somehow the car hasn’t went the way we needed it to.

“We’ve just raced so well and haven’t been able to put it together after that last pit stop. In Bristol, it probably showed more the most because we had such a good car.”

With only two races left for drivers to “win” their way into the Chase field, those without victories this season are walking a delicate balance between doing whatever it takes to secure a victory yet also remain as high in points as possible.

Even if new winners are crowned in the next two races, that will leave at least a couple slots open in the Chase field for drivers based only on points.

In McMurray’s case, he is going down to the wire battling for one of those positions with a familiar foe – his Chip Ganassi Racing teammate, Kyle Larson.

In recent weeks, McMurray has looked in better position to turn into Victory Lane while Larson, a rookie, is in a better position in the points standings (12th).

The Ganassi organization as a whole has performed well this year on the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks, which bodes well for both drivers this weekend at Atlanta. Although the tracks are quite different, McMurray’s strong showing at Bristol should at least provide some confidence heading into next weekend’s race at the short track at Richmond, Va.

“Listen, this is hard, and part of what makes our sport so tough is that you have so many ups and downs,” McMurray said. “The key to doing well is to not be too high when things are going well and not get too low when things aren't going well.

“I think for Kyle, he’s just – he’s raced a lot of races throughout the year in sprint cars, but there’s so many ups and downs with this, and I think he’s done a really good job at not beating himself up too bad when a tire blows out or he made a mistake and not being too excited when he does well.”

A two-day test at Chicagoland Speedway earlier this week – another intermediate track – also reinforced to the Ganassi drivers that they are on the right path.

“It’s good, I felt like, to have (Kevin Harvick) there. You know, I would say, if you had to pick a car all year long that's been the fastest in raw speed, (Harvick’s) been that guy,” McMurray said.

“So it was nice to kind of have a baseline to know what’s probably going to be fast when you go back.”

In the meantime, McMurray said he and his No. 1 Chevrolet team will continue to work on improving their performance throughout the course of a race, which he feels will be the key to turning into Victory Lane.

“If we can just put a whole weekend together and be able to finish off as well as or better than we ran throughout the race, yeah, I feel like the next two races should be really good for us,” he said.

“I hope we’re able to put it all together in one of those.”

And claim his invitation to the Chase.