No race on the Cup schedule tends to be more revealing than the Brickyard 400, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Not only does it fall after a rare off week, giving teams extra time to prepare their race cars, but the track's layout also favors the most skilled drivers and the teams with the most resources. Every corner at the 2.5-mile superspeedway possesses different characteristics, which means it takes a perfectly balanced race car with a driver who always hits his oh-so-precise turning marks to reach Victory Lane. Small wonder that Cup champions tend to excel there. Just seven men have won 14 of the 16 races at Indy, and all seven have won at least one Cup title.
"There are no slouches that win at the Brickyard," says Tony Stewart. "The cream rises to the top for this event."
On Sunday it was Jamie McMurray who rose at Indy, and while it seems unlikely that he will win this year's series crown, he certainly proved he can be a contender. He's 16th in the standings and trails Clint Bowyer by 151 points for the 12th and final spot in the Chase. "We can't think about points, but I promise you we will make a lot more noise before this season is over," says Steve Hmiel, the director of competition at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. "We've shown that we can run with anyone."
McMurray, 34, has been the feel-good story in NASCAR this season. Released by Roush Fenway Racing (with which he won only two races in 144 starts from 2006 through '09) after NASCAR forced the team to cut from five cars to four, the once promising McMurray was at a crossroads. Chip Ganassi, with whom he began his career in '02, threw him a lifeline, and the driver promptly rewarded the owner with a victory in February's Daytona 500. "Jamie learned a lot ... at Roush," says Ganassi, who is the first owner to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400—the crown jewels of U.S. motor sports—in the same year. "He's a more mature driver who rarely makes mistakes. I sure am glad he came home."
If there has been a hitch to McMurray's and Ganassi's dream season, it was a frustrating run of bad luck through the first 20 races. McMurray, whose six top-five finishes are more than those of all but five drivers in the top 12 of the standings, has three DNFs, all the result of crashes that were not his fault. Had he finished those races, he would be much closer to the top 12.
On Sunday, McMurray, like most of his rivals, was driving a car that had been completely rebuilt for the Brickyard. His crew chief, Kevin Manion, plans to roll out several new cars between now and the end of the regular season on Sept. 11 at Richmond. "Our best stuff is coming, and all we need to do is knock out top five finishes and we'll make it," says Manion. "I wouldn't bet against Jamie getting in."
Or making more noise in 2011 and beyond.
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For the second straight year Juan Pablo Montoya, the teammate of Jamie McMurray at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, dominated the Brickyard 400 but lost. After leading 116 laps last year—only to finish 11th after being busted late for speeding on pit road—Montoya (below) was the class of the field on Sunday, leading a race-high 86 laps. But after falling behind when he took four tires instead of two during a late pit stop, Montoya overdrove his number 42 Chevy, lost control and crashed into the wall. He wound up 32nd. The race was emblematic of his season. After finishing eighth overall in 2009, Montoya hasn't run higher than fifth in more than two months. He has seven DNFs and has fallen to 22nd in the standings. McMurray is now Ganassi's best bet to make the Chase.
SMOKING Since signing with Ganassi (bottom, left), McMurray has won the Cup's marquee races, at Daytona and Indy.
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (GANASSI AND MCMURRAY)
[See caption above]
NIGEL KINRADE/AUTOSTOCK (MONTOYA)