After battling a crumbling track and the most fiercely competitive Daytona 500 field in recent memory, the race came down to double overdrive. On the final lap, three drivers pulled ahead of a pack that was nearly overflowing the racing surface. Fifty-four drivers showed up at Daytona, and only one of them would cross that line first.
Jamie McMurray shed tears of joy in hallowed ground after rolling his Chevy into Daytona's Victory Circle, the same hallowed ground Earnhardt finally got to enjoy after 20 years of trying, King Richard visited seven times, and Pearson visited in his battered Mercury.
McMurray himself was battered. When he won in his second race, the NASCAR world expected the future of Chip Ganassi's young star to parallel that of Jeff Gordon.
It would not. He would not win for Ganassi again.
Four years later, he joined Roush-Fenway Racing. Here, it was thought, McMurray would have the tools and resources to truly shine. Roush produced champions and some of the greatest drivers in NASCAR: Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Burton, among others. McMurray was supposed to be the next one.
He was not. In four years, he won twice.
At the end of 2009, Roush's five-car team was forced to downsize to four cars. They tried to find another car for McMurray but were unable to, especially after having to use his sponsor to fill their own sponsorship gaps.
As the end of 2009 drew near, McMurray had few options. NASCAR Sprint Cup racing had too many drivers and not enough teams. One prospect opened up: he could go back to Chip Ganassi, now a part of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, and drive the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy.
But could he?
Bass Pro Shops didn't even want him. His image didn't fit the outdoorsman qualities they were looking for, and his results didn't warrant them turning a blind eye. Chip believed in him, but more successful drivers were also shopping around.
Fortunately, Chip Ganassi's word in the racing world is taken for gold. He was able to get Bass Pro Shops to take a chance on McMurray. It paid off right away.
As he exited his car in victory lane, the emotions of the past few years finally lifted off him, and it was more than he, or perhaps any man, could take. Tears of joy flowed, as he simply couldn't contain everything this race means.
And when he looks at his own Harvey J. Earl trophy, he will see the names of Richard Petty, Dale Jarrett, Darrell Waltrip, David Pearson, Jeff Gordon... and Jamie McMurray.
But will his success continue?
Who knows. No matter what anyone tries to tell you, no one knows. After 2008, we knew Carl Edwards was going to win a lot of races in 2009. We knew Kyle Busch would make the chase. Even in McMurray's case, after his first win in 2002, we knew he would have a great career ahead of him.
We can try to predict, but we honestly can't. Especially in McMurray's case, where we happen to have a great track record of wrong predictions. No one expected him to win the Daytona 500, especially in his first race with a Ganassi organization vastly different than the one he left in 2005. Nonetheless, I'll try...
He'll probably have a decent year. He's never been bad, just not as good as we thought. But he could still surprise us. His confidence probably hasn't been all that great the past few years, and there's nothing better than winning the biggest race of them all right out of the box with a brand new team to rejuvenate you. Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing definitely has the equipment to support him.
Other Daytona Surprises
The Track: Well, um, the track started falling apart.
Opinions are evenly split over whether or not to repave Daytona. Some say it's necessary and will produce great racing, but others say Daytona already produces great racing and repaving it will reduce its uniqueness.
I say repave it. It's going to have to be done eventually; it's been 31 years since Daytona's last fresh coat of asphalt. Your highways get repaved more often than that. Talladega was repaved just a few years ago, and it still produces great racing. Daytona's racing will be different for sure... but the bumps will be back, the track will weather, and through the whole process it will still have great racing.
Allmendinger: A.J. Allmendinger's good run was a surprise as well until it ended prematurely. I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about Calls I Blew in 2009, and A.J. was one of them. I hope I'm not jinxing him by hoping he and the No. 43 have a good year.
The Truck Race: I'm pretty sure NASCAR needs to show a replay of SPEED's broadcast of the Camping World Truck Series race as it's drivers meeting for next year's Daytona race and perhaps even this fall's Talladega race. Don't just show clips of it as part of the meeting... make the replay the meeting.
The NASCAR officials warned the drivers that bump-drafting, while technically legal, was not such a good idea, that it was really not a good idea... that bump-drafting could result in mass chaos and destruction.
Get the picture?
Yet, the drivers did it anyway. About halfway through the race, I pretty much figured the race would be decided by process of elimination. Bump-drafting works in the Sprint Cup Series, but not in the Camping World Truck Series.
Through all of this, we saw just how simply great Daytona racing is. And, you know what? After nearly three months of waiting... racing is back.
What do you think? Was the racing better than it was in a long time? Should the track be repaved? Sound off in the comments.
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