Jamie McMurray was worried, and he had every right to be.
Working with then-new crew chief Keith Rodden last season, McMurray felt even though he didn’t reach victory lane in a points race, he and his team performed the best consistently since winning three races in 2010.
At the end of the season, which included a victory in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, Rodden returned to Hendrick Motorsports leaving McMurray searching for another new crew chief for his No. 1 Chevrolet team at Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.
“When we had this crew chief change, I was a little bit nervous about what was going to happen,” McMurray said.
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Matt McCall, who was the race engineer on driver Ryan Newman’s team last season, took over as crew chief of the No. 1 team and McMurray has been as good, and even better at times, than he was last season.
His fourth-place finish Sunday at Richmond, Va., pushed him to ninth in the Sprint Cup standings — the highest he has been since he was fourth after the second race of the 2010 season.
“Matt has done an exceptional job,” McMurray said. “Honestly, our cars are probably better, are better this year than what they were last year, and he’s done a really nice job of calling the races and giving me a really fun car to drive, that’s fast.
“Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are extremely quick, but I think we proved [at Richmond] that we have a team and a car capable of, put in the right position, to compete with those guys.”
Entering Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama, McMurray has two top-five and four top-10 finishes in nine races, including a runner-up finish to Harvick at Phoenix in March.
At this point last season, McMurray was 18th in the series standings and had not finished better than sixth.
His best stretch of the 2014 season came in May and June. It began when he won the All-Star Race and its $1 million top prize and followed it up the next week with a fifth-place finish in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
McMurray then added finishes of 13th at Dover, Del.; 10th at Pocono, Pa.; 12th at Michigan; and fourth on the road course in Sonoma, Calif.
He then finished 20th or worse in three of the next four races and fell out of contention for a spot in the Chase.
Although McMurray has won several of NASCAR’s biggest races in his career, he has never been in contention to win a series championship, something he hopes to change this season.
McMurray said that one of his goals in 2015 is to finish higher than he projected his car to be capable of going into that week’s race, and better than the car actually performed.
“That’s hard to do,” McMurray said. “When I look at Kevin [Harvick] and Jimmie Johnson and a lot of those guys, they tend to do that. They tend to finish just a little bit better than where they ran in the race.
“I didn’t do that last year, so we’ve done a really good job of being able to do that this year.”
This week’s race
Talladega Superspeedway, Talladega, Ala., noon, Sunday
TV: KDFW/4Radio: Motor Racing Network
Distance: 500.1 miles (188 laps on the 2.66-mile tri-oval)
Last year’s winner: Denny Hamlin
Worth mentioning: Michael Waltrip Racing co-owner Michael Waltrip will return to the track this weekend in the No. 55 Toyota in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega. After this week, David Ragan is expected to take over the driving duties for that team for the remainder of the season.
▪ Winn-Dixie 300: Xfinity Series, Talladega Superspeedway, 2 p.m. Saturday, KDFW/4
Who’s Hot/Who’s Not
Kurt Busch: Winning cures everything, even NASCAR suspensions.
Kevin Harvick: In nine races this season, he has finished first or second seven times.
Denny Hamlin: Led all but two laps in winning Xfinity race in Richmond.
Daniel Suarez: Xfinity rookie has two consecutive finishes of sixth or better.
Chase Elliott: Seven top-10 finishes in eight Xfinity races this season. Added a solid 16th-place finish in his second Cup series start.
Clint Bowyer: Picked up his first top-10 finish since Daytona.
Tony Stewart: Looked to have another good finish until an incident with Dale Earnhardt Jr. knocked him out of last week’s race.
Roush Fenway Racing: All three of its Cup teams finished two laps off the pace at Richmond.
Brad Keselowski: Had one of the few cars able to keep pace with Kurt Busch at Richmond until he dropped a cylinder late in the race.
— Jim Utter
1. Kevin Harvick314
2. Joey Logano284
3. Martin Truex Jr.281
4. Jimmie Johnson258
5. Brad Keselowski255
6. Dale Earnhardt Jr.241
7. Kasey Kahne237
8. Matt Kenseth236
9. Jeff Gordon227
10. Aric Almirola226
11. Denny Hamlin223
12. Jamie McMurray223
13. Danica Patrick211
14. Paul Menard210
15. Carl Edwards203
16. Ryan Newman201
17. Clint Bowyer 200
18. David Ragan197
19. Casey Mears186
20. Greg Biffle180
21. Austin Dillon177
22. Kurt Busch174
23. Kyle Larson173
24. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.172
1. Ty Dillon293
2. Chase Elliott285
3. Chris Buescher282
4. Darrell Wallace Jr.268
5. Regan Smith252
6. Elliott Sadler244
7. Brendan Gaughan244
8. Ryan Reed243
9. Brian Scott243
10. Daniel Suarez240
1. Matt Crafton128
2. Tyler Reddick126
3. Erik Jones122
4. Johnny Sauter112
5. James Buescher100
6. John Wes Townley90
7. Ray Black Jr.89
8. Cameron Hayley84
9. Spencer Gallagher84
10. Ben Kennedy83