Commentary

A change in philosophy means rebirth for McMurray

Jamie McMurray is starting to show the kind of results for Roush Fenway Racing that have been expected of him. How is he accomplishing it? A major change in attitude, writes Marty Smith.

Originally Published: November 5, 2008
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

I met a guy named Hale Hughes this past weekend at Texas; he inspired me. He's the guy who gave the command to start the engines after having won Dickies' Worker of the Year contest. Hughes is a good ol' boy, a Texas oil field worker who lives and breathes NASCAR racing. He loves Ryan Newman, but had Jeff Gordon finished one position better Sunday night, he'd be a millionaire.

Oddly enough, the experience seemed more valuable to Hughes than the money.

In meeting him, I was reminded just how blessed I am to be here. You get lost sometimes in the Suitcase 500 and forget to stop and take it in. Hughes reminded me to stop and take it in.

Marty,

Most people say Jamie McMurray is out at Roush when NASCAR makes them go to four teams, but the way he's running lately they may want to second-guess that! What's going on with the 26 car?

Will they still change crew chiefs with the way Jamie's racing now? I'm a huge fan and he's always being criticized by the media. Give my man the recognition he deserves, Marty!!

-- Tracee Pardue, Fenton, Mo.

No question, Tracee, your man needs some love. Well, sort of. Professional love, he could use. True love, not so much. He has plenty of that these days.

Ladies, Mr. McMurray is officially off the market.

He told me Tuesday he proposed to longtime girlfriend Christy Futrell. About time that boy wisened up.

Fired Up
Few drivers are more maligned than McMurray. Why? My opinion is because he won Charlotte out of nowhere in his second career start in 2002 and then became the first big-name, big-money driver Jack Roush brought in from another team.

Starting with Kurt Busch and on to Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards and now David Ragan, Roush cultivated drivers in the Trucks Series and pushed (some of) them to the Nationwide Series and on to the Cup Series. McMurray was hand-picked to replace Mark Martin in the No. 6.

Hello, scrutiny.

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Expectations were excessive from the outset and haven't been met. It's really that simple.

That, in turn, has resulted in two years of fan -- and media -- criticism and incessant questions about his future. Roush says McMurray absolutely will be in the No. 26 in 2009. From there, though, who knows? McMurray told me Tuesday he doesn't know what will happen in 2010, when NASCAR forces Roush Fenway to contract one of its five teams.

If you think about it, Edwards and Biffle both just signed multiyear extensions. Ragan is the season's biggest surprise, having shown considerable improvement from his "dart without feathers" (Tony Stewart's words) debut and maturity beyond his years. Plus, UPS just signed up to sponsor him for the next century or something.

And Matt Kenseth is, well, Matt Kenseth. Stranger things have happened -- Junior leaving DEI; Smoke leaving Gibbs -- but Kenseth will be at Roush until he decides he doesn't want to be at Roush anymore. (Kenseth is among the most underappreciated talents and personalities in the sport. He's drier than Clark W. Griswold's Thanksgiving yard bird and every bit as funny.)

That leaves McMurray. He's not naive. But the boy can drive. People try to tell me otherwise, and I laugh at them. Has he lived up to expectations? Again, no. But don't think for one second he isn't a coveted talent in the garage -- and, maybe more importantly, in corporate America.

"I didn't really pay attention to everything that happened earlier in the year. I knew what the truth was," he said about the speculation of his imminent firing. "And I knew where the media was coming up with some of their stories. I knew where they were coming from, but they didn't have the whole story.

"At the same time, when I was getting fired, I was having numerous car owners call me and try to hire me," McMurray continued. "So it would really suck if you thought you were going to lose your job and weren't going to have one. Everyone was saying I was getting fired, but at the same time, I was flattered by the amount of teams that were calling me."

New Perspective
McMurray's performance has improved dramatically in the past two months. For the first time in a long time, he is consistently among the 12 best cars on the track every weekend. He figures he could have won three of the past eight races.

It took roughly 18 months for him to find his place at Roush Fenway. It also took the boss man some time to figure out the most effective motivation tactics.

"I came so close to making the Chase with Ganassi the first two years and did it with a lot less equipment," McMurray said. "And I felt like -- and I think Roush felt like -- that we would immediately just be in the Chase, that it wouldn't even be a challenge. It was just going to happen.

"And the first year at Roush was just a disaster, with making the crew chief swaps, which I didn't have anything to do with those. Jack was doing what he thought was right. And I think Jack has learned a lot. He's told me this -- some people are motivated by pressure. Some people are motivated by humiliation. Some people are motivated by good, positive attitudes.

"And Jack really didn't use the third one until he used the first two, and I'm not a guy that's motivated off of threats or off of humiliation. I did a lot better with an owner with a positive attitude. That's better motivation for me than anything else. But really, over the last three months, I have raced better and been faster than I've ever been."

All it took to get there was a complete change in mindset -- toss aside that which you have employed for 20 years and take the polar-opposite approach.

"There are guys out there that are running really well that, I don't think, know much about race cars," McMurray said. "But they know how to say my car's tight or loose. They know how to say what the car's doing and let their teams fix it for them. I looked at that and used to get so frustrated.

"I talked with Matt Kenseth about that, because I think Matt is one of the smartest drivers on chassis setup. Biffle, too. But Matt was always really sharp on chassis. And he told me last year, he's like, 'Jamie, it's too much for me to understand all of it. That's why we have engineers and crew chiefs. I just tell them what the car's doing now.'

"I remember thinking, 'Damn, I can't believe you would give into that, because you're so good at setting your car up.' It's hard. And you can tell guys that, but it still doesn't work."

Two months into the 2008 season, the boys on the 26 team -- crew chief Larry Carter, the team's car chief and the engineer -- called a meeting with McMurray to tell him it was time to trust them. McMurray always has been fully engaged in setting up the car. (The guy has his own shock dynamometer, for heaven's sake.) But with the new car, which utilizes "bump stops" to limit front-end shock travel, adjustments made often don't produce the anticipated feel.

McMurray was confused and frustrated. The new philosophy was necessary.

"I quit telling them what I thought it needed, and instead, I just told them what the car was doing," McMurray said. "So instead of saying, 'Car's loose, we need some right rear spring out or lower the track bar,' I'd just come in and say, 'The car's loose.'

"I'd specifically tell them not to tell me what they were changing, because I would get a preconceived notion that if they do that, I know what's going to happen."

He also stopped studying what the other Roush Fenway teams changed and the feedback regarding how those changes affected the other drivers. His sole focus is his car and how it reacts to his feel.

"A lot of that stems from Ganassi," he said. "When I drove the 42 car, we typically always ran better than the 40 or 41. The majority of the time, the 42 would outperform the other two, and I never paid attention to what anyone else had. We just did what we thought was right. And so I've kind of gotten back to that. We're just doing what's right for us now.

"And for me, the key is not knowing what they change. Because I'd be way more honest -- my opinion was unclouded. If they change something and I don't know what it is, and I tell them it's tighter and it was supposed to make it looser, well, that's what I felt."

Leadership Change … Again
The new approach is working … just in time for yet another crew chief change. McMurray changes crew chiefs like I change underwear.

"I am all for the crew chief change because I've worked with the crew chief in the past," McMurray said of bringing in veteran Donnie Wingo. "He's like my best friend, and ever since I left Ganassi, I have remained very good friends with Donnie.

"The whole time I was at Ganassi, I can remember seeing crew chiefs that had an engineering background and thinking in my head, 'Damn, I really wish I had a crew chief with that background, because I think that would take me to that next level. Instead of running sixth to 12th, we'll maybe contend for wins.'

"But I didn't realize how great I had it. I've missed Donnie ever since. Larry's done a great job, but you kind of get used to working with someone, and I feel like everyone I've had since [Wingo], I've compared to my times with Donnie. And those were probably some of the best races for me. Next year, I think, should be my best year ever."

The Six …
Hey Marty,

By the time you get this, Jimmie Johnson may already have his third straight championship sewn up. There's no question that he and Chad Knaus have the best driver/crew chief chemistry.

However, I can't seem to convince myself that he's as talented a champion as Rusty Wallace, Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, etc. Do you think the other current drivers now regard JJ as one of the great ones or more of a product of stellar Hendrick resources?

Where would you list Jimmie among all the great past champions?

-- Steve, Austin, Texas

This is a great question, Steve, because you're right -- it doesn't seem as if Johnson's success is acknowledged by his peers. But if you think about it, how often do competitors pat a guy on the back when he's dominating them? Ummm … never?

You don't hear Kevin Garnett gush over Kobe Bryant, even though I'd venture to say Garnett respects Bryant immensely. You don't hear Ray Lewis admiring LaDainian Tomlinson, even though they're the best at their respective positions. Racing is no different.

This topic actually came up this past weekend, regarding both Johnson and Gordon. Jeff Burton and Martin gave some insight I found intriguing. Burton was asked about Gordon's place on the all-time list and whether he gets due respect from his contemporaries. His answer, in my mind, applies to both Gordon and Johnson.

"I think that drivers that are in the era of another driver don't give that driver much respect," Burton said. "It's easy for me to sit here and say how great Richard Petty was because I never had to race against him, and I think drivers have a hard time saying, 'You know what? That guy might be better than me.' So people that are in an era, they don't give the credit due."

Excellent point, no? I think about it in personal terms: Do I give Dr. Jerry Punch due credit? No. Doc is great at his job, but I expect him to be -- and I live in the moment with him. It's truly hard to respect a man's talent until it's gone. Like Ken Squier, who to me is the eternal standard for racing play-by-play. When I turn on ESPN Classic and hear Squier, I think to myself, "He's the best ever." And it's not even close.

When Martin was asked about Johnson, he admitted to being a bit skeptical at first, too.

"I've had the opportunity to spend a little time inside the walls of Hendrick Motorsports, and once again, I'm a little shamed of myself that I didn't know this already, but Jimmie Johnson makes it look so easy that we don't realize that he's not just a lucky guy who gets to drive Chad's car -- that's the best car on the race track," Martin said. "That's a little bit shallow of me to have thought that.

"The more I find out about Jimmie Johnson, the more I understand why he is experiencing the success that he does and that's kind of cool. It's nice to learn things, and I've certainly learned from being inside those walls, that Jimmie Johnson is incredibly committed. It reminds me of some young men from many years ago.

"But Jimmie is willing to do whatever it takes to gain an advantage on the competition, whether it's mental or physical or mechanical.

"I think that's really cool. I've also learned along the way and have a renewed respect for the incredible talent that Jeff Gordon has, because a lot of the success that Jeff Gordon has experienced over the years came because of his incredible talent and not because he drove the best race car in the garage, as well. I guess you live and learn, and I'm sure I've got a lot more to learn, but those are two things that I've really noticed over the past 12 months or so that I've been involved with Hendrick Motorsports."

There's your answer, Steve.

Marty,

First of all I'd like to say way to go to [AJ] Allmendinger and the good finishes with the No. 10 car. And I was wondering if there is any new news on AJ?

-- Lenny from Vermont

None at all, Lenny.

And those are AJ's very words.

Marty,

You may be too young to answer this question. What was Marty Robbins' car number?

-- R. Hinkle, York, Pa.

Forty-two. (I'll admit, the Internet told me.) Didn't he race against the Duke boys once?

Marty,

Lose the pink shirt, man. You look like a traffic cone.

-- Charles Lackey, Columbia, S.C.

Yeah, another lady wrote me and said that between my hair and that shirt, I looked like a sea anemone. That was damn clever, far more creative than a traffic cone. But I can't find her response right now to give her some love in The Six, so you get the cutdown of the week, Charlie.

That's my time this week. Two to go. Pack the sweat-proof SPF 50 and the drink umbrellas.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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