Ganassi driver McMurray clinches Chase spot at Richmond
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Jamie McMurray had been dubbed NASCAR’s “big game hunter” for winning so many marquee races.
He just couldn’t make NASCAR’s playoffs.
McMurray’s chase for the Chase is over, needing only the green flag to drop to clinch his first career berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship Saturday night at Richmond.
McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010, is only the second driver to make the Chase for team owner Chip Ganassi, following Juan Pablo Montoya in 2009.
“I’ve won some big races for Chip,” McMurray said. “I remember at the (2014) All-Star race when we won, I looked at him in Victory Lane and was like, ‘It’s crazy all the stuff we’ve got to do together.’”
Now they can hunt for a championship and try and give Ganassi a title to go with the IndyCar championship won by Scott Dixon.
“I think we can give it a shot here,” Ganassi said.
McMurray, who finished 13th, is winless on the season and so are the other drivers who earned spots in the field on points at Richmond.
Paul Menard clinched his first career berth, even with a 26th-place finish. Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer held on to their spots and round out the field.
Newman and Menard both made the Chase for team owner Richard Childress. Newman advanced to the final race last season at Homestead before he was eliminated from contention. Kevin Harvick won the championship.
“We’ve got just as good a shot as last year when we proved we were championship contenders,” Newman said. “People learned our method. It’ll be a different Chase.”
Childress was all smiles when he shook Newman’s hand and slapped him on the back on pit road. Newman finished 20th and both RCR drivers are slumping headed into next week’s Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway.
“We’ve got to run better than we did tonight,” Childress said. “But if you’re in the Chase, you’ve got a chance.”
Menard has only four top 10s and has finished 24th with two straight 26ths in his last three races.
“I don’t know to be happy or sad,” Menard said. “It’s a long night for sure. The last few races have been really bad for us. It’s been a lot closer than I wanted it to be. But it’s an all year process.”
Gordon, who was seventh, will surely be the sentimental favorite and has one last chance to win his fifth championship for Hendrick Motorsports before he retires.
“We’re behind. We know that,” Gordon said.
Bowyer qualified in the final season for Michael Waltrip Racing. The Kansas native is looking for a new team for 2016.
“Everybody knows the news, all the stories, all the stuff,” he said. “A big monumental thing for an organization to go through what we’re going through and to push through and get into the Chase. This is the best of the best, the elite of all of motorsports. MWR is once again part of it.”
Matt Kenseth won the race and finished in a tie with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch and six-time champion Jimmie Johnson for the top seeds in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
McMurray missed the cutoff for the Chase by one spot in 2004 and lost the final spot after a crash at Richmond in 2005. He also lost out on the final Chase spot at Richmond in 2014.
“I fully intend on driving for Chip for the rest of my career,” he said.
Ganassi’s left arm was in a sling after he broke his collarbone when he fell off his mountain bike last week. He tweeted a picture of his X-ray and had surgery last Sunday.
“It’s more of an inconvenience and uncomfortable thing as opposed to pain,” he said. “I had to ride back a couple of miles after I did it to get to my car. I’m starting to sweat just thinking about it.”
His arm hardly seemed to bother him as fireworks went off around him.
“It’s gratifying to bring a group of people together and accomplish something like this, and to be a part of a team of guys that accomplished this,” Ganassi said. “Now that’s the first goal, the goal changes now. The goal post changes to winning races and advancing in the Chase.”
Aric Almirola, one of the 2015 surprise Chase contenders for Richard Petty Racing, pretty much had to win to crack the field. He finished a season-high fourth but fell just shy of a repeat performance.
Had Almirola won, he’d have earned an automatic berth into the Chase and bumped another driver.
“Our cars just haven’t had the speed, and we’ve managed a way to get good results,” he said.