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McMurray finds comfort in restrictor-plate chaos

For three weeks in February, Jamie McMurray was the most popular driver in NASCAR.

Every time you saw him, he had a huge smile on his face as he basked in the glow of his surprising Daytona 500 victory.

Through appearances on such high-profile shows as "Live with Regis and Kelly" and "The Late Show with David Letterman," McMurray quickly -- if only briefly -- became the new face of NASCAR.

His emotional Victory Lane celebration and engaging personality suddenly made him a fan favorite, one whose popularity quickly soared.

But two months later, McMurray seems like a forgotten man, with lackluster results since Daytona overshadowing the biggest triumph of his career.

McMurray's Daytona 500 victory seems like a distant memory as he has plummeted from the top of the NASCAR world to 21st in points in the past nine weeks.

Instead of being the darling of the NASCAR world and a dark horse to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, McMurray has returned to also-ran status with just one top-10 finish since Daytona and consecutive finishes of 30th, 24th and 30th. His controversial run-in at Las Vegas with Juan Pablo Montoya didn't help, leading to a tongue-lashing and some tense moments with his own teammate.

Since Daytona, McMurray has looked like the hard-luck, inconsistent driver who couldn't seem to find his way in four disappointing seasons at Roush Fenway Racing.

In three short months, he has gone from the feel-good story of the year to a sympathetic figure that can't seem to catch a break.

That may all change this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, site of McMurray's third career victory last October.

McMurray has four Sprint Cup victories in his eight-year career, three of them on restrictor-plate tracks.

And two of his four wins have come in the past two restrictor-plate races, making him the new favorite at Daytona and Talladega.

With two wins at Daytona and one at Talladega -- all in the past four seasons -- he is suddenly NASCAR's new Mr. Restrictor Plate.

McMurray has more top-five finishes at Talladega (4) than at any other track and will be looking for his second straight win at NASCAR's most unpredictable speedway.

It would not be surprising, in fact, if his roller-coaster season came full circle this weekend, putting him back on top, right where he started the year.

McMurray is somewhat of an enigma. He seems to struggle on big, wide-open tracks where speed, handling and consistency are the name of the game. His struggles on typical NASCAR tracks has led to confidence issues, forcing him to use a sports psychologist at one point to work on his approach.

But at Daytona and Talladega, where chaos reigns, McMurray is at his best. Unlike many of the sport's top drivers, he is comfortable in the swirling draft that requires cunning and daring moves.

He also doesn't mind the dangerous pushing and shoving and bump-drafting that has become the latest trend on restrictor-plate tracks. He shoved Kevin Harvick into the lead in the Daytona 500, and then used a big push from Greg Biffle at the end to win the race.

He seems to thrive under pressure, performing his best when the heat was on at Roush and rising to the occasion on NASCAR's biggest stage in February.

For whatever reason, McMurray seems more comfortable in the eye of a hurricane than on an island by himself on safer, more forgiving turf.

His recent success has earned him respect as one of the sport's best restrictor-plate drivers. But he is dangerously close to earning the dubious distinction as a driver who excels on only one type of track.

Michael Waltrip currently holds that honor, having won the Daytona 500 (twice) and scoring four career points victories, all in restrictor-plate races.

McMurray has shown the potential to win on other tracks -- a feat he desperately wants to achieve -- and has come close twice to making the Chase.

With an improved Earnhardt Ganassi team, this could be the year he proves he can do it.

Until then, he will continue to enjoy his Daytona 500 trophy and his distinction as NASCAR's Mr. Restrictor Plate.