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NASCAR’s Jamie McMurray enjoying resurgence at 40

By Hank Kurz Jr.

AP Sports Writer

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Jamie McMurray has become the “other” driver on Chip Ganassi Racing’s two-car team.

The 40-year-old veteran, in his 15th season on NASCAR’s top circuit, hasn’t won in more than four years. His teammate is 24-year-old Kyle Larson, the early points leader and one of racing’s rising stars.

But McMurray is enjoying a resurgence with three top-10 finishes in the first five races, good for sixth in the standings heading into Sunday’s 500-lap race at Martinsville Speedway. It’s a track where McMurray has finished second twice but never won.

“Here and Sonoma are kind of the two tracks to me that every year that I look the most forward to going to because I feel like I’ve always qualified really well at them and I’ve raced really well,” McMurray said Saturday. “Honestly, I really don’t feel like I’ve gotten the finishes I deserved at those two tracks.”

His second-place finishes on the 0.526-mile oval came 11 years apart, and he came up short against two of the best at Martinsville. Jimmie Johnson beat him in 2004 and Jeff Gordon in 2015. Both Hendrick Motorsports drivers have nine victories on the oldest and shortest track on NASCAR’s top series.

McMurray will start sixth, his sixth top-10 start in as many races this year. He always watches the previous year’s race in preparation, but he’s philosophical about how much he can control. Gordon had probably a fifth-place car when he won in 2015, McMurray said, but variables come into play late in every race.

“I think we’ll have a chance to win tomorrow,” he said. “Are the circumstances going to play out? I don’t know, but in three weeks, we might go somewhere and have the fifth-best car and we might win there.”

The improvements in his team, McMurray said, have been three years in the making, or since he started working with crew chief Matt McCall. Some changes in the offseason also have made their midweek work more beneficial.

“We changed the structure of our weekly procedure at the shop on meetings. We changed a lot of things and tweaked on it and I feel that’s really helped our performance,” McMurray said. He even changed the day he comes into the race shop because he didn’t feel he was using his time “efficiently or effectively.”

The changes haven’t been sweeping, but “10 little things that I feel have made a difference.”

A 117-race winless streak can cause whispers about whether a driver’s best days are behind him. McMurray doesn’t necessarily think that running well prolongs a driver’s career. But his current success makes him feel all the work is paying off.

“It just seems like every week we get a little quicker in relation to the other cars on the track,” he said. “It’s so much fun to come every week when you can compete and run as well as we have.”

When the time comes to walk away, McMurray has what he thinks is a clear picture of how it will go.

“I have every intention of being Ricky Rudd,” he said.

Rudd, a 23-race winner in a 33-year career, retired and apparently has no great need to linger around the garage and tracks.

“When I tell you this is my last one,” McMurray said, “you guys will never see me again.”

•••

ELLIOTT HOLDS OFF SAUTER FOR 2ND NASCAR TRUCKS VICTORY

MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Chase Elliott had spent lap after lap pursuing race-leader Christopher Bell, trying to find, or create, a way around him.

Turned out, he didn’t have to do a thing.

Elliott grabbed the lead when Bell wiggled with 17 laps to go and held off teammate Johnny Sauter to win the NASCAR truck race at Martinsville Speedway on Saturday.

“I was trying,” Elliott said. “There were a couple times I really tried to pass him and got into him pretty hard and was trying to kind of root him up out of the way. He was doing a really good job of controlling his momentum and my momentum coming to his bumper.

“His bumper was getting awfully blue as the day went on. I was going to try to be a little more aggressive if I got back to him, but had a little help from his misfortune, which happens. I’ve been on both ends of it, so we’ll take it.”

Elliott, who lost out to Sauter on the 0.526-mile oval last October, held off one challenge from the defending series champion and pulled away for his second victory in 12 career starts in the series. Sauter finished second, followed by Bell, rookie Noah Gragson and Ty Dillon.

Sauter, who unlike Elliott is a contender for the truck series title, played it safe, and might have been kicking himself later.

“To be completely honest with you, before that last caution came out, there was an opportunity to get by Chase, and I cut him some slack,” said Sauter, who was seeking a record fourth victory at Martinsville. “… In hindsight I should have probably went ahead and did what I needed to do.”

The exciting finish was set up by a mistake Bell made with 17 laps remaining that handed the top two spots to Elliott and Sauter.

Bell had led for 90 laps, much of it with Elliott on his rear bumper, looking for an opening. The break came when Bell, frustrated that rookie Austin Cindric was slowing him down while trying to stay on the lead lap, finally nudged Cindric heading into a turn, causing Cindric to lose traction, and then Bell to get loose as well. It created an inside lane for Elliott and Sauter to slide into the top two positions.

“It’s miserable to know that you’re leading the race and I was having to run real hard to keep those guys behind us,” Bell said, “so it was a pretty stressful last stage there with (Elliott) being a little bit better than I was. But up until that point, we had held them off.

“Obviously, it was going to get a little bit tougher the later you get in the race, but I felt like our chances were really good and then to come up short the way we did, getting tangled with a lapped car was disheartening,” he said.

On the final restart with 12 laps to go, Sauter immediately tried to get around Elliott on the outside, but failed to do so and had to slide back in line to protect his position. He did, and Elliott pulled away and wasn’t challenged again over the final 10 laps.

Elliott, who is ineligible to collect points in the truck series as a full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series competitor, led at the end of the 70-lap first stage, and Sauter led at the end of the second, earning him valuable regular-season points and a valuable playoff point.

The race was just the third of the season in the series, and came after a three-week layoff. Another one beckons now as the series doesn’t return to action until May.

More racing: http://racing.ap.org/salisburypost/

http://racing.ap.org/salisburypost/schedule/

http://racing.ap.org/salisburypost/standings/

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