McMurray and crew aiming higher
"Jamie and Donnie [Wingo, McMurray's crew chief] and everybody on the Texaco/Havoline team are ready to compete for the championship. It's that simple," Ganassi said. "We got eked out of the top 10 last year by 15 points, but there's nothing older than yesterday's news.
"The only thing left for that team to do is win races and compete for the championship. With the improvements we've made to the whole team, we expect to see the 42 car in victory lane and making a run at this thing this year. It's that simple."
All righty then.
Yes, McMurray would have been in the top 10 last year under the old point system and would have made the Chase for the Nextel Cup if not for a 25-point penalty the team incurred for a body that didn't meet NASCAR's templates before the spring race at Bristol.
But as Ganassi said, none of that matters now. McMurray's beginning his third full Cup season and he expects McMurray to deliver on the potential exhibited when he won in just his second start, driving an injured Sterling Marlin's car in October 2002.
McMurray says he'll put more emphasis on leading at least one lap in a race to collect the five bonus points that comes with it after his near-miss last season. And if he's got a chance to pick off one more spot late in a race, he'll try to capitalize on those opportunities as long as it doesn"t entail too much risk.
"I think that's our mentality, to go out and lead as many races as we can to get those bonus points," McMurray said. "If you have problems, don't give up. We had that same mentality last year, but when you go through what we did it makes you think about it a little more.
"I think our performance is good enough. We just need to work on finishing more races. Our weakest point right now is superspeedway races. I don't mind coming to (Daytona and Talladega). I enjoy the racing part of it. I don't know if I put myself in a bad position, but I always seem to get caught up in the wreck. I think that's a big focus for us. Last year it was road course races and we finished second at Sonoma. We really tried hard at those and tested all of them, so we're going to try to do the same thing at the superspeedways this year."
The 28-year-old Joplin, Mo., native will also try to keep things in perspective, even if the team doesn't get off to a quick start adjusting to the new Dodge Chargers he'll be driving. McMurray and the rest of the sport's top drivers will begin getting a better handle on how this year will unfold during test sessions at California Speedway and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Drivers will be testing with the shorter spoilers and softer tire combinations for the first time in packs, getting a better idea of what to expect away from Daytona.
And those initial impressions could go a long way. McMurray once took classes that stressed the benefits of positive thinking, though he admits he doesn't always think positively. Sometimes, he believes just keeping an open mind is the best approach.
"I just listen to the people around me, and it's huge," he said. "Guys can show up at the racetrack and be beat before the races ever start. I think that's why you see when a guy wins a race; they often win two or three in a row.
"Once they realize they can do it, it just happens for 'em. It's not something you can make your mind or body do. I just typically tell myself what I want myself to do. Instead of looking at it and saying, 'Don't do that,' I just tell myself to do this. There are a lot of different ways to look at racing and the best way I've found is to look at it with a positive attitude."
McMurray suspects drivers will be angry with the shorter spoilers, just as they were after the initial tests last year. Then, after a few races to adjust, most of the hue and cry went away.
Teams often come up with ways to improve their cars despite NASCAR's best intentions and McMurray won't be surprised if that happens again.
"It's going to be important to go there and just try to get good balance," McMurray said, referring to the amount of downforce on the front and rear of the cars. "The fact that test is going to be so close to the race date and then we come straight to Daytona pretty much when you leave that test, if you have a good test there you pretty much know when you go back you're going to race well.
"Guys are not going to have time to go back and cut up cars and try to do something different. Those first two tests for the majority of the teams are going to be very important."
Heading into the season, McMurray doesn't plan on doing anything differently in his attempt to reach the Chase. He says changing one's approach only leads to problems and his team plans on having a smooth season.
In 2003, the rookie was working with a new team still finding its way. Things improved last year, despite the team moving into a new shop while Ganassi also started up a Busch Series team.
This year, the biggest adjustment is to the new Charger, leaving the team time to solidify. McMurray believes it will make a difference.
"We had a lot going on last year, and I don't know if that set us back but it definitely didn't let us move forward the way we needed to," McMurray said. "This year the Busch team is established. All of our cars are way ahead of where they were last year, and we're in our new building. Right now we're doing a lot of research and development and making our cars better.
"Everybody thinks their season is going to be better, but our team is going to be better. One of our weaknesses last year was pit stops, not only for my team but for all three (Ganassi) teams. They have taken that program in and hired a lot of new people and they feel like that's going to be a big difference this year. As much as we did last year it was hard to move forward. The fact we're all moved in right now, we're moving forward and we should get better."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine and a contributor to ESPN.com.