Up-and-Comer Finds the Top
Viv Bernstein, NY Times
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The tears flowed freely a year ago for Jamie McMurray, a driver with a redemption story that played out on Nascar’s grandest stage.
He cried in victory lane after winning the Daytona 500, the most prestigious race on the Nascar circuit, after falling short of expectations earlier in his career. McMurray went on to produce what was one of the most successful runs of any driver in the Sprint Cup Series last season.
A year later, McMurray returns to Daytona International Speedway with his No. 1 Chevrolet, and, unlike in 2010, he is thought of as a contender this year.
And that might be the most gratifying change in one year’s time.
“Way less pressure than ever before in my career to perform,” McMurray said as he relaxed Friday in advance of Sunday’s Daytona 500. “I feel like now, they’re not surprised by it, and I think people know that you have the ability if you just get in the right situation.”
McMurray, 34, had to go full circle in his career to finally find that situation. He had arrived in Nascar in 2002, an up-and-comer with the former Chip Ganassi Racing team who took over for the injured Sterling Marlin and stunned Nascar by winning a Cup race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second career start.
McMurray was 26 at the time, with a promising future, although he never made it back to victory lane over the next three years. So it was an easy decision when the high-powered Roush Racing team offered him a contract beginning in 2006.
But that did not work out, either. He won two races in four years with Roush and did not make the Chase, the end of season playoff, in that time. When Nascar mandated teams be limited to no more than four racecars, McMurray wound up the odd man out on the five-car Roush team. He lost his ride at the end of 2009.
It was Ganassi, having merged his team with Dale Earnhardt Inc., to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, who called McMurray to see if he wanted to return.
The decision was easy for Ganassi and McMurray.
“There were options, but only one good option,” McMurray said.
They reunited in 2010, with neither knowing if it would work this time. That was until the Daytona 500, when McMurray put the No. 1 Chevrolet in the lead on a late restart and held off Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the victory.
McMurray followed that by winning the second most prestigious race on the circuit, the Brickyard 400, as well as a fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in a season in which his first child, a son, was born on Thanksgiving Day.
McMurray equaled his career win total in one season and revitalized a team, including the crew chief Kevin Manion, that had lost its longtime driver, Martin Truex Jr., who left after 2009 to drive for Michael Waltrip Racing.
“You never know what you’re going to get until you open that present up, and Jamie was a present for this team,” Manion said. “He was a new light that this team needed to just get a jump start.”
McMurray also put Earnhardt Ganassi back among the teams capable of winning races in the competitive Cup series.
“I think it validated everything,” said Ganassi, whose IndyCar Series team won the Indianapolis 500 in 2010. “It validated the way we operate our teams, validated our work ethic, our modus operandi.
“It certainly gave us more credibility, I think.”
McMurray did not qualify for the 12-car Chase playoff, finishing 14th in points despite the victories. His performance helped convince Nascar officials to alter the formula for determining the Chase field. Now only the top 10 qualify on points. The last two qualify on victories. Had the new system been in place a year ago, McMurray would have made it.
He will be expected to make it this season, beginning with the Daytona 500. McMurray has one of the stronger cars in the field, and with the new tandem-style racing that made its debut here this year, he will be in demand as a partner on Sunday.
That is new, too.
“People talk to you differently,” McMurray said. “Even being down here this weekend, I’ve had what I would consider some of the best teams and drivers come up to me before the race and want to work with you. And I think that that means that you’ve been accepted into this group of winners.”