Almost nobody expected Jamie McMurray to win the 2010 Daytona 500. It was his first race with Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after four lackluster years as the fifth driver at Roush Fenway Racing, and nobody knew whether or not the combination would work out.
Chip Ganassi was the first owner to give McMurray a shot in Cup, promoting him in 2002 when Sterling Marlin was injured, and McMurray rewarded him by winning in his second career start. But it took McMurray almost five years to win again.
He’s never made a Chase (despite coming close for Ganassi twice in the mid-2000s), and plenty of folks thought his career was dead in the water after the four years of middling performance at Roush.
The combination of Dale Earnhardt Inc. and Chip Ganassi Racing before last season was also a huge question mark, although Juan Montoya’s consistent performance throughout the regular season and early part of last year’s Chase answered his side of the equation. Martin Truex Jr., on the other hand, struggled desperately to perform, and left the team for Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the year.
This opened the door for Ganassi to bring back McMurray, and he rewarded the racing magnate’s judgment by winning the biggest race of the year.
Now, the biggest question is what kind of team McMurray’s will be for the next 35 races of the season.
Glory at Daytona can be used to propel a driver into the championship hunt. Ernie Irvan and Davey Allison used their 1991 and 1992 victories, respectively, to assert themselves as legitimate championship contenders. Irvan in 1991, Allison in 1992, and Sterling Marlin in 1995 (the year of his second consecutive 500 win) had their best career finishes in points coming off of Daytona victory.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a great season in 2004 after winning the Great American Race for the first time. His six wins that year were a career high, and although he slipped two positions in the final standings from his career-best third in 2003, he was a legitimate title contender the whole year.
Jimmie Johnson’s 2006 victory in the race led to his first career Cup title, despite regular crew chief Chad Knaus being suspended for the race. Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett each won the first race of the season the year after winning championships, in 1999 and 2000 respectively.
But plenty of drivers have seen their triumph at Daytona lead to a long dry spell.
Let’s start with last year. Sure, Matt Kenseth also won the next week’s race at California, but he missed the Chase for the first time in his career as well. Neither Ryan Newman (2008) nor Kevin Harvick (2007) have won points-paying Sprint Cup races since their respective Daytona 500 triumphs.
Michael Waltrip wasn’t able to turn either of his Daytona 500 triumphs, in 2001 and 2003, into season-long success, falling to 24th and 15th in points those two years, respectively. His win in fall 2003 at Talladega remains his final Cup win to date.
The worst season by a Daytona 500 winner in recent memory, however, belongs to Ward Burton, who finished 25th in points after his triumph in 2002. Burton started the season by leading at least one lap in the first five races, but 15 finishes outside the top 10 in the first 19 races of the year killed any hopes he had of championship contention. By the end of the next season, he was no longer employed at Bill Davis Racing.
The big question, then, is this: Will Jamie McMurray have a Sterling Marlin type of season after winning the Daytona 500, or a Ward Burton year?
We know that Chip Ganassi’s equipment is stellar in every racing series he enters. His IZOD IndyCar Series teams have won the past two championships, his Rolex Sports Car Series team is always contending for the title, and Montoya elevated the Sprint Cup team to a new level last year. The equipment and resources are certainly available.
McMurray’s also got a fire inside after the past four years at Roush. He needs to prove that he’s still “got it,” or perhaps that he ever “had it” at all; three of his four wins in Sprint Cup came on restrictor plate tracks, where anything can happen. This currently puts him in a category with Waltrip, as both were marketable mid-pack drivers who collected all of their mid-career victories in plate races.
McMurray needs to return to the form that nearly propelled him into the first Chase in 2004, and the Ganassi equipment has to stay as strong as it was last year. But if one or both of those things doesn’t happen, we could see yet another fluke Daytona 500 victory.