McMurray learned from last year’s Chase, even though he wasn’t in it

JOLIET, IL - SEPTEMBER 18:  Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 McDonald's/Cessna Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series myAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 18, 2015 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

JOLIET, IL – SEPTEMBER 18: Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 McDonald’s/Cessna Chevrolet, drives during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series myAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on September 18, 2015 in Joliet, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

JOLIET, Ill.—Jamie McMurray didn’t make the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last year, but he learned quite a bit from it.

In fact, McMurray qualified for the Chase this season for the first time since the playoff format’s inception in 2004, but in racing against—and observing–the title contenders last year, he had the chance to develop his own strategy.

Of particular note to the driver of the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet was the performance of Ryan Newman, who advanced to the Championship 4 Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway without winning a race and came within a half-second of beating Kevin Harvick for the championship.

“You want to see how far you can go, and I think that the 31 car (Newman) was somewhat eye-opening last year,” said McMurray, who, like Newman, hasn’t won a Sprint Cup race since 2013. “I don’t know if anyone would have selected them to make it to the final round at Homestead, and they did. And they put together quite a race when they got to Homestead.

“For us, we’ve been top 10 in points all year, so I feel that, if we can go out and do what we’ve been doing, that’s a realistic goal. You hope that you’re able to get your cars better and have better races when it counts the most. So I’m looking forward to see how the first three or four races play out…

“Winning is important, but it’s not the only way to get there.”

McMurray believes the key to advancing through the opening Challenger Round of the Chase is avoiding catastrophe at Chicagoland, New Hampshire and Dover. The 16 Challengers will get their first postseason test Sunday in the MyAFibRisk.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

“When I look at the strategy of how you head into this, the first round is about… you’d love to be able to win one of those races, but it’s also about not having a bad one,” he said. “And I think that, if you just have three solid races in that first round, you’ll make it through to the next round and then regroup, see who you’re racing, what tracks (are on the schedule) and go from there.”

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