McMurray's plight not so bad after all

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Courtesy of a five-driver, one-race fight for the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship, many have lauded NASCAR's new points system a resounding success.

But for drivers currently sitting sixth through 10th, formerly title Chasers and now also-rans, something odd has happened.

The luster of a top 10 points finish has been spoiled a bit. The excitement of that top 10 points finish and that invitation to speak at NASCAR's end-of-the-year banquet just doesn't quite offer the same feeling of success it did in years past.

"This year, if you finish in the top 10, but you're not racing for the title, then it's a disappointment to a certain extent," said driver Ryan Newman, who is seventh in the standings and mathematically eliminated from competing for the title Sunday. "It's still a top 10, but you think about you were [within 50] points [of first] with 10 races [to go]."

Meanwhile, Jamie McMurray, the kid who narrowly missed an invitation to the 10-race shootout, pulled away from the handful of other competitors who fell just short and comes to Homestead-Miami Speedway having clinched 11th place.

This year, that means three things: A million-dollar bonus, a spot on the stage at the end-of-the-year banquet, and the comfort of knowing you ended your season strongly.

"I can breathe a little easier this week heading into Homestead knowing that we have 11th place in points sewn up," McMurray's crew chief Donnie Wingo said. "I'm really proud of all the guys on this team for their hard work and dedication this year.

"I think a lot of people were wondering how we were going to perform once Richmond was over and we didn't make The Chase, and I feel like we've shown how strong this team is."

Compare that with the sentiments of those drivers who did make the chase, but have no shot at the title on Sunday.

"The Chase for the Nextel Cup hasn't gone the way we expected," said Jeremy Mayfield, who's 10th in the standings. "It seems everything that could possibly happen to a team has happened to us.

"We're not alone. Several other teams in the Chase have experienced similar problems. It's not a case of our team not trying. I couldn't ask more of the team. They've put their heart into the Chase. The teams at the top haven't worked any harder than we have. The effort has been there."

Says eighth-ranked Matt Kenseth's crew chief Robbie Reiser: "I have a feeling we're going to have a good weekend and make up for some of the finishes we haven't had lately. The pit crew is on their 'A' game right now and I think we have a great car and we had a great test. We'd like to go out on top this year."

So while Mayfield is left licking his wounds and Kenseth and Co. hope for a victory to gain some momentum before season's close, McMurray knows he's going to go into the offseason with confidence, having already proven that his team will be a formidable foe in 2005.

"You just feel good everyday when you wake up," McMurray said. "You feel good about going to the racetrack and when you make a decision in the car you feel like you're making the right decision. You don't doubt yourself. It's something wonderful to have on your side.

"Obviously, when we didn't make the Chase, that was our goal. I think a lot of people thought that when we didn't make The Chase, us and the other five or six teams, that maybe our season would be over with. But our team got stronger it seems like. Luck started going our way where maybe we didn't have some of that earlier in the year, but from Richmond on it was really good."

As a result, while McMurray says he hopes for a victory, or at least a strong finish at Homestead, he knows that he can head to New York for the banquet feeling worthy.

"Last year, when we went to New York I think we finished 13th in points, and honestly I really didn't feel like I deserved to be there," he said. "I think that's reserved for guys that had a really good season.

"I'm looking forward to going this year. We didn't get to the Chase, so our next goal was to finish 11th and it's been a fairly successful season. I can't wait to get next year started."

And while it's safe to say every one of the five drivers in the top 10 who are out of the chase are eager to hit the garage over the offseason and take their success to another level next season, the sting is still there from knowing how close they were.

After Richmond, the top 10 drivers' points were reset and each was separated by just five points of each other. That meant 10th place was still only 50 points out of the hunt. This set up a situation where one bad race took a team's championship dreams out of their control and made them dependent upon everyone ahead of them to mess up.

That's why Jeremy Mayfield and Tony Stewart aren't in the hunt, as each was involved in a wreck not of their making in the first leg of the 10-race shootout.

Even Jimmie Johnson, who now stands only 18 points out of first, depended on others to get himself back in the hunt. He stumbled out of the gates and fell almost 250 points behind the leader, but rode four victories in five races to climb back in it. Still, without Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. each having messed up, Johnson wouldn't have a shot.

It's this one-bad-outing-and-done scenario which fosters the disappointment. Kenseth, for instance, finished 32nd at Dover. He was fourth in the standings before that and knew that his title dreams were done unless other contenders experienced similar problems as him.

"One bad race doesn't necessarily take you out for good," Kenseth said, "but it will if you don't get some help."

Those out of the hunt didn't get any help, and as a result they've entered the finale no better off than the non-Chase field as far as winning a title goes.

"All you can do is try to go out on top and race for a win at Homestead," Stewart said.

Rupen Fofaria is a freelance writer living in Chicago and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rfofaria@espnspecial.com.