Can Jamie McMurray Duplicate Last Year's Shocker?
And so far, each time a car owner has taken a chance on the 27-year-old Missouri native, the payoff has been more than worth the risk.
Chip Ganassi, an accomplished owner in the Indy Racing League and Championship Auto Racing Teams open-wheel ranks, took a chance on McMurray last year, adding him to his NASCAR Winston Cup Series organization and that chance translated into one of the most exciting and memorable moments of the 2002 season.
McMurray, who Ganassi hired just a month before, filled in for the injured Sterling Marlin, and won last October¿s UAW-GM Quality 500 in Marlin¿s No. 40 Dodge.
It was just McMurray¿s second Winston Cup Series start and he hadn¿t even won a Busch Series race.
¿There is no way to match what happened last October. I can¿t imagine how I could,¿ McMurray said. ¿I wouldn¿t give up my first win for anything. Just the way the situation came about¿being at Charlotte, a 500-mile race that went into the night and filling in for someone. You couldn¿t have written a book any better.
¿I¿ve raced my whole life. I¿ve raced go-karts, raced every series in NASCAR and winning in your second Winston Cup start, how do you top that?¿
McMurray started racing go-karts at age 8. He won four U.S. go-kart titles between 1986 and 1992 and was a world go-kart champion in 1991. He competed in late models, the NASCAR RE/MAX Challenge Series and made a few Craftsman Truck Series starts before joining Brewco Motorsports for the 2001 NASCAR Busch Series season.
McMurray had an up-and-down year with Brewco in 2001, finishing third in the Busch Series rookie-of-the-year standings. His future at Brewco remained in doubt at the end of the season, but team owner Clarence Brewer brought him back for 2002.
That decision would prove valuable for both.
McMurray developed much more consistency on the track and began challenging for victories. His performance was improving but his future remained up in the air late in the season after the team was informed its sponsor would not return for 2003.
Then came a phone call that changed McMurray¿s life.
¿Chip (Ganassi) was the first person who called me about driving the 2003 season. Of course, I can¿t think of anyone better to have call you,¿ McMurray said. ¿It was a weird feeling to have the Winston Cup point leader¿s car owner call you and want you to drive a car for him. I don't think I could have made up a better ride than that.
¿There really was no question in my mind what I was going to do. I was like, ¿Whatever we need to do, let's work it out.¿ I hate worrying. I like being secure about what is going to happen in my life,¿ McMurray continued. ¿Chip went out on a huge limb to hire me. I didn't have any bargaining rights. It's not like I was like a four-time champion changing teams.¿
So McMurray signed on¿but with little fanfare. His hiring was simply announced with a press release. Media and fans were stunned because McMurray¿s name had never been mentioned as a possible candidate during the search process.
But one person had taken a keen interest in McMurray and, in the end, he was the only one who mattered.
¿Here was a guy in the Busch Series who always seemed to finish first in class, if you will. If you took away the ¿Buschwhackers¿ so to speak (teams backed by Winston Cup programs), you saw a guy who was a sponge¿a guy who wants to learn,¿ Ganassi said.
¿You almost think at first it¿s a bit of an act, but the guy is really interested in his career, in getting better and bettering himself on and off the track, as a race driver and as a person.
¿He¿s got a real drive that you don¿t see much of in his generation.¿
So McMurray¿s future seemed set.
He would finish the season with Brewco Motorsports, perhaps make a Winston Cup start or two with Ganassi in 2002 and then run the Winston Cup Series full-time for Ganassi in the Havoline-sponsored No. 42 Dodge.
But as had happened many times in McMurray¿s career, a chance circumstance provided another opportunity.
Marlin was involved in two hard crashes late in the 2002 season and before the fall race at Talladega, Ala., he was diagnosed with a fractured vertebrae in his neck, forcing him out immediately.
So Ganassi turned to his newest hire.
¿I remember when they told me they wanted to put me in the car for the rest of the year, everyone was like, ¿That's a great opportunity.¿ It was, but at the same time it could have really bit me,¿ McMurray explained. ¿If I had went out and finished 40th in every race and not have been able to qualify, it would have been a long winter. I was especially nervous going to the Charlotte race because I had always struggled there.¿
McMurray faired well in his Winston Cup debut at Talladega, finishing 26th despite running out of gas at one point. The next test was Lowe¿s Motor Speedway and his ¿unofficial¿ debut on the home court of NASCAR.
¿I was just hoping Jamie was going to have a clean evening. There were a lot of things going into that night¿it was no secret Charlotte was not one of his favorite tracks. We just wanted him to stay out of trouble and get a lot of experience,¿ Ganassi said.
¿Hey, we knew we had a great car and a great crew and everybody was clicking. We were confident in the team and we were hoping Jamie would have a clean evening and the guy did a hell of a job.¿
So good, McMurray remained competitive the entire race, battling veterans like Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon to stay in the hunt for the victory.
It was a special night¿the race moved into the evening hours because of a rain delay and McMurray was driving the car and for the team that had won this race the year before.
And it did so again.
¿I think that win did more to boost Jamie¿s confidence as much as anything else. All these young guys, they want a chance, an opportunity. In the right circumstance, given the right situation, at the right time on the right night, any of these young, fast kids can do well,¿ Ganassi said. ¿That¿s what you saw with Jamie at Charlotte. It¿s an instance like that that can change a young man¿s whole life, his whole career. It can do the opposite, too.
¿In sports, it¿s a great thing to see a Jamie McMurray, when you see those things happen. It reminds you why we are attracted to sports¿for those special moments when the unexpected happens. Everyone needs a good story once a while.¿
Tickets for the inaugural nighttime running of the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Saturday night, Oct. 11, start at just $19 and can be obtained by calling 1-800-455-FANS or online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.