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 the 2010 season.
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,” he said.
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Matt McCall, who was the race engineer on driver Ryan Newman’s team last season, took over the helm 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 Series 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 (Ala.) Superspeedway, 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 yet to finish 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; 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 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.”
Utter: 704- 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter