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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Jamie McMurray will be the David Ragan of 2009

Sometime, a switch just flips for a driver.

One year, they are struggling and getting in everyone’s way on the track, or wrecking everyone. Then the next year, they start to compete with the big boys on a regular basis for wins and maybe even a Chase spot.

Last year, that was David Ragan. A below-average driver for Roush Racing in 2007 who caused more than his share of wrecks, many were calling for his release at the end of that year. Jack Roush stuck by his choice, and his patience was paid off in 2008 when Ragan went on a tear toward the end of the season and almost made the Chase. I predict he will carry that momentum into 2009 and make the top 12 this season.

The question now is: Who will be this year’s David Ragan? Will a driver who has been average or below average in his career up until now suddenly blossom into a contender?

When I look at the list of drivers competing in 2009, there are very few contenders for this possibility. I’ve always thought Juan Pablo Montoya could be great in NASCAR, but the instability of the new Earnhardt Ganassi organization makes this unlikely. David Reutimann had a good run at the end of 2008, but I’m not sold on him becoming a guy who will be running out front each week -- mainly because he’s driving for Michael Waltrip.

For a minute, I thought Casey Mears had a shot at this honor, but then I realized that he’ll likely be the fourth best RCR car, just as he was the fourth best Hendrick car. Mears has a famous name, but I don’t think he quite measures up to his famous family in terms of his ability to be a winner.

After careful consideration, I believe that this year’s breakout star will be someone who burst onto the scene strong and flamed out quickly, and has been extremely mediocre ever since: Jamie McMurray.

Yes, the turnaround story of 2009 will once again come out of the Roush camp. McMurray won his second-ever Cup race while filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin in 2002. But after that, he struggled at Ganassi, and since arriving at Roush he has been the fifth wheel.

One reason McMurray should flourish in 2009 is that this is final year Roush can have five teams. At the end of the year, one team has to be chopped. Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan have all been more consistent than McMurray and thus are not worried about being the one to be axed. McMurray needs to have a great season, or it will be a foregone conclusion that he will have to move on to another team. In that scenario, his best prospect right now is moving to the Yates team, where he would be affiliated with Roush, but have less reliable equipment.

That’s a lot of motivation for McMurray, as he is basically auditioning this year. He has to try to show Roush he doesn’t deserve to be cut, and someone else (perhaps Kenseth or Biffle) is less worthy of a ride. It’s a pretty impossible battle to win considering his competition is pretty stiff, but I see him putting up a good fight. And if he does well and Roush still decides to cut him, perhaps another big team will have a strong ride open up and he’ll be given a chance to flourish elsewhere.

McMurray also has some momentum after coming on very strong at the end of the 2008 season. Whatever was ailing this team appears to have been at least partly cured, and I see a solid 2009 season for McMurray. The Chase is probably still out of his grasp (It’s hard to make the top 12 when his Roush teammates and the big dogs at Hendrick, Gibbs and RCR take up almost all of the spots each year), but don’t be surprised if that late-season form he showed becomes a regular occurrence and he finishes in the top 15.

Before I go, I’d like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope everyone has a joyful day with family and friends and can forget about all their troubles for a little while.


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