What We Learned from Daytona: McMurray Back Home at EGR with Great Win

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 16, 2010

Throughout Speedweeks 2010, this Joplin, Mo. native has been relatively under the radar as a dark horse contender for victories in the NASCAR Sprint Cup events.

Most prognosticators and fans went with the usual favorites like Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jeff Gordon, and Kyle Busch, feeling like the juggernaut operations would kick off their seasons in dominant style.

After the checkered flag flew over the Daytona 500 field, Jamie McMurray won more than just the Great American Race. Perhaps for the first time since 2005, this 33-year-old racer has that confidence to attack and go after it for a championship. He enjoyed his finest point-standing finishes with Chip Ganassi's team, which was then a Dodge program.

Aligned with Felix Sabates and essentially Dale Earnhardt Incorporated, the Chevrolet team emerged as a solid title contender when Juan Pablo Montoya compiled a career season in 2009 with an eighth-place finish in the Chase. While JPM failed to win a race last year, he urged his No. 42 Target car to seven top-fives and 18 top-10 results while truly contending for his first championship.

It was only a matter of time before Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates would get its well-deserved win with strong performances at nearly every track on the circuit last year. With McMurray back in the fold, EGR has a super-speedway specialist and an older, wiser driver than the one who took home Rookie of the Year honors in 2003 who can win races.

Throughout the practice sessions and races leading up to the Daytona 500, there was an aura of quiet confidence with McMurray. Following his tumultuous years with Roush-Fenway Racing, the eighth-year driver drove his No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet Impala with optimism and poise for his new "old" team.

In his first "unofficial" return to EGR, McMurray placed second in the Budweiser Shootout, finishing just behind Kevin Harvick in what was a very solid performance in the 70-lap event. Leading his share of laps and keeping his fenders clean, the Missouri racer's name was one to watch in the Duels and "The Great American Race."

McMurray compiled another solid showing, placing sixth in the first Gatorade Duel race to earn a 13th-place starting spot for the big show. And what a show he delivered for the racing fans who endured a lengthy spectacle nearly marred by the pothole problems on the aging asphalt of the Daytona International Speedway.

For once, lady luck was truly on his side, exorcising the race demons that often "lure" him to crashes, equipment problems, or driver mistakes that often cost him victories in his career. Led by crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion, McMurray drove his No. 1 Chevy to an amazing victory, beating one of the sport's best restrictor plate racers in Dale Earnhardt, Jr., to the stripe.

How many times do racing fans truly get to see pure emotion from a race winner?

From the pictures and videos of the post-race celebration, you could tell how much the Daytona 500 win meant to McMurray. Breaking down in tears in Victory Lane, joking with the media about his father accidentally leaving the track prior to his win, and hearing about his love for family, it was a victory for everyone.

Perhaps this is the true arrival of Jamie McMurray, who's endured an inconsistent Cup career with some highs in his four career victories. However, it's no secret that when he entered the Cup series in 2003, high expectations were placed upon him.

After all, he scored an upset victory as a substitute driver for Sterling Marlin at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October of 2002. Making that victory significant was that it was his second career start in stock car's most elite series.

Between 2003-06, the young gun ran into some frustrating championship campaigns, as he failed to win races as well as battle for titles. Ganassi was a respectable unit anchored by veteran racer Sterling Marlin and ex-open wheeler Casey Mears. Unfortunately, the only memorable moments of McMurray's first tenure with Ganassi were his painful misses to make the Chase for the Cup field in 2004-'05.

Labels like overrated, over-hyped, and has been were applied almost liberally with McMurray, as if competing with guys like Gordon, Earnhardt Jr., Busch, Greg Biffle, and Matt Kenseth was the easiest chore in the world. Perhaps a change of scenery was needed for the racer to get his competitive spirits back. Thus began his four years at "Jack Roush University."

While he had won a pair of races during his Roush years, it was mired within disappointing results at most venues. Sometimes, sheer bad luck plagued his efforts, like equipment problems or getting caught up in accidents from somebody else's mess. No matter how you put it, McMurray's Cup career was almost like a heartbreaking country song on repeat or like watching Saved By the Bell: College Years.

Well, just like those songs or struggling young actors, their stories have happy endings and perhaps the veteran driver found just that with EGR. His old house got some renovations, if you will, the "parents" in Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates could not be any happier with their kid back, and the family "car" is much faster, stronger, and now, it's a winner.

Daytona may be a unique form of racing that is not inherent on the remaining 32 races of the season. Drafting at "The World Center of Racing" and Talladega requires a different kind of discipline to succeed, with a chess-game mentality needed to make all the right moves from start to finish. Make no mistake, however—McMurray is a legit racer ready to win races and championships.

To succeed in NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, you need to succeed at tracks like Auto Club Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Altanta Motor Speedway. Those facilities reflect more of what true Cup racing is all about.

Certainly, drafting is an element at these intermediate racetracks, but it's an entirely different ballgame than the plate facilities. Handling will be the key to success for all the teams, with races at these speed arenas often won by making the right adjustments to the car. While a fast car may be great at the start of a run, it's more important to have it adjustable. 

Variables like changing track conditions as well as track position are reasons to have a car that can be tweaked easily by matter of wedge or tire pressure. Races are often won by virtue of a team that has its driver, pit crew, and car working on all cylinders (no pun intended).

EGR, mainly through Montoya's efforts, were strong at these tracks last year, where the Colombian harnessed his aggression with finesse and agility. Known more for his road course and super speedway talents, the 2000 Indy 500 champ showed he could handle the NASCAR flavor of racing, garnering several top-fives and 10s.

With his experience and new-found confidence at a track like Auto Club or Las Vegas, it may be the one-two punch needed to succeed in 2010. Montoya's strengths in road courses and intermediates will compliment the super speedway and short track skills of McMurray, making them quite the potent combination for fantasy racing team owners.

Regardless of how 2010 goes for McMurray, it can be certain that his popular victory will remind racing fans of how much the competition, challenges, and the sweet thrill of success means to each racer. Now a Daytona 500 champion, the accolades are all his and EGR's for the taking, and their success and confidence can only get higher.

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