CHARLOTTE - The pressure is officially on Jamie McMurray, a one-time Chase contender who now finds himself in jeopardy of missing races.
A disastrous start to the season - his best finish was a 22nd at California - sent McMurray into NASCAR's first off weekend ranked 36th in the points standings. It had to have made for a miserable break for McMurray.
He heads into Martinsville Speedway, where he must qualify on speed to make Sunday's race. It's an agonizing position for any driver, but must be particularly difficult for the self-loathing McMurray - a guy who was so despondent over his first season at Roush Fenway Racing, he couldn't sleep.
A personal trainer and a sports psychologist helped him rebuild his confidence, and the work seemed to pay off last season when McMurray snapped a 166-race winless streak and showed flashes of the skill that had once anointed him NASCAR's next superstar.
A replacement driver for an injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray set a NASCAR record by winning in his second start.
With just two victories in 191 career starts, he's never lived up to that early billing. Even now, in his topflight Roush ride, McMurray is struggling.
With the pressure mounting to solidify a spot inside the top 35, McMurray instead finished 40th or worse in the past two races. His last-place finish two weeks ago in Bristol dropped him five spots in the standings and put him officially outside the top 35.
McMurray hasn't notched a top-10 finish since Texas last November, and that snapped a streak of five consecutive finishes of 24th or worse. He hasn't been inside the top five since his last-lap victory at Daytona last July, his second and last win.
McMurray finished 13th in the points during his 2003 rookie season and just missed out on making the Chase in 2004 when he wound up 11th when the 10-driver field was set. He was 12th the next season.
Recognized as a promising driver in underperforming equipment, car owner Jack Roush took a chance on him in 2005 by signing him to a contract that initially wasn't supposed to be until his deal with Ganassi ended after the 2006 season.
But McMurray used the early signing as leverage, often wondering why Ganassi would hold him to a contract McMurray clearly didn't want to fulfill. The two car owners negotiated before Roush finally secured McMurray's early release.
It didn't come cheap, and Roush's investment has yet to pay off. McMurray ran through three different crew chiefs in 2006 while finishing 25th.
It led McMurray to see a sports pyschologist, and Roush allowed him to handpick his own crew chief for 2007. McMurray settled on Larry Carter, and the early results were positive as he showed flashes of the potential Roush and so many others had seen in him.
Somehow, the wheels have again fallen off. This time, they might not be so easy to put back on again.
For as much as racing depends on equipment, a driver also must have the right mental frame to find success. Situations change in the blink of an eye, and it takes total focus to adapt to everything being thrown at a driver at nearly 200 mph.
And confidence plays a heavy part in the equation. A driver must have the guts to make a split-second decision and never doubt his instincts.
That's all currently in question now for McMurray, who has proven through five-plus seasons to be extremely sensitive to the highs and lows of his career.
He'll never be called the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart, but McMurray is still an above-average driver in the fortunate position to be piloting superior equipment. All things being equal, he should be running with teammates Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, and Matt Kenseth, who are all ranked inside the top 12 right now.
Even David Ragan, the perceived weak link at Roush coming off a horrid rookie season, is 21st in the standings with a top 10 finish this season.
It can only mean something is off with McMurray, and it's something only he can fix. Until he gets his head back in the game, he doesn't stand a chance at saving his season.
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