Sports

Jamie McMurray hopes this is his year in NASCAR

Jamie McMurray has won some big races but never qualified for the Chase for the Cup

Jamie McMurray is among the few drivers who can say they've won two of NASCAR's crown jewel races, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400.

His resume has one glaring omission, though: McMurray, now in his 13th full season in the Sprint Cup Series, never has qualified for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup title playoff.

And at 38, McMurray knows the end of his racing career is closer than its start, so his championship opportunities are dwindling.

But this might be the year McMurray finally lands a berth in the 16-driver Chase.

The Joplin, Mo., native arrived for Sunday's Cup race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana having finished second to winner Kevin Harvick last weekend in Phoenix.

Although that's McMurray's only top-five finish so far this year, his No. 1 Chevrolet — prepared by the team of Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates — has been fast early this season.

"It's been the first time in my career that we've unloaded and every single weekend you're fast," McMurray said, giving much of the credit to his new crew chief, Matt McCall.

Even so, McMurray on Friday afternoon qualified a mediocre 26th in the 43-car field for Sunday's race. "Not what we wanted," McMurray said.

Kurt Busch won the pole position with a lap of 185.142 mph at the two-mile Fontana oval.

Busch recently was reinstated by NASCAR after a three-week suspension amid domestic-violence allegations against Busch by a former girlfriend, allegations Busch has denied.

Harvick, winner of the last two Cup races and Busch's teammate at Stewart-Haas Racing, qualified second and three-time Fontana winner Matt Kenseth was third.

The Ganassi team often lacked consistent speed over the years, which is one reason why McMurray never has finished in the top 10 in points for a season. His best finish was 11th in 2004.

McMurray is 19th in this season's standings, but, under NASCAR's revamped Chase format, winning any of first 26 regular-season races probably would propel McMurray into the playoff.

And for the first time in his Cup career, McMurray is approaching each race with the belief he can reach Victory Lane.

"We intend on making the Chase, I think our cars are quick enough," said McMurray, whose teammate is 22-year-old Kyle Larson, now in his second Cup season.

McMurray began his Cup career with Ganassi in 2003, left for Roush Fenway Racing in 2006-2009 and returned to Ganassi's team in 2010.

It was a triumphant return, with McMurray winning the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in that 2010 season. But Ganassi's cars then struggled to consistently keep pace with those of NASCAR's other top teams.

In McMurray's prior 19 starts at Auto Club Speedway, his best finish was fourth, in 2004 and again in 2005. He finished sixth last year.

Other drivers have noticed McMurray's resurgence. "I can see him driving with a new confidence," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. "I definitely think they have turned the corner and made improvements."

Vickers sidelined again

Brian Vickers has been sidelined again by blood clots that will prevent him from racing this weekend.

The driver of the No. 55 Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing has been placed on blood thinners, and 22-year-old Brett Moffitt was tapped to replace him this weekend, the team said. Moffitt qualified 30th for Sunday's race.

Vickers missed the first two races this season, at Daytona and Atlanta, while recovering from heart surgery last December.

The surgery was to repair an artificial patch over a hole in his heart, a patch first inserted in 2010 amid his first bout with blood-clot problems.

Team co-owner Michael Waltrip drove Vickers' car in the Daytona 500 and finished 26th; Moffitt drove the car at Atlanta Motor Speedway and finished eighth.

Vickers finished 15th at Las Vegas in his return to the Cup series March 8, but was involved in a crash on the first lap at Phoenix last Sunday and finished 41st.

james.peltz@latimes.com

Twitter: @PeltzLATimes

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