September 7, 2002 was a tough day in the life of Sterling Marlin.
Going into the day the points leader by 91 points over defending champion Jeff Gordon, Sterling was optimistic.
After over 20 years of racing action, Sterling was headed to his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship.
It wasn't meant to be. Sterling hit the wall hard on lap eight. As Sterling climbed out of his battered No. 40 Coors Light Dodge, an expression of pain came across his face.
Sterling continued to race in 2002 until a crash at Kansas resulted in a broken vertebrae in his back, and Sterling's hope of a championship was officially over. But the race in Richmond resulted in the original injury.
The list of names to replace Marlin was long. Most thought a Nationwide Series regular would get the job.
Certainly nobody thought that a kid from Joplin, Missouri who few had heard of was ready to jump into such a good Cup ride and compete so fast.
I mean, Jamie McMurray was virtually a nobody—a 26-year-old guy with only 64 Nationwide Series starts, three top fives and 14 top 10s. Everyone thought that the season was over for the No. 40 team.
Jamie's first start was at Talladega. He put his foot in it too, starting on the inside of row three in his first Cup start.
He kept the car off the wall and finished the race in 26th place. His Sprint Cup debut wasn't great, but it could've been a heck of a lot worse.
Then Charlotte came up. Rumors had Mike Bliss taking over in the 40 car. But team owner Chip Ganassi still stuck with the kid. Jamie again put the car on the fifth position in qualifying.
Jamie had run a pretty fair race all race long. Finally the kid took the lead on lap 212, taking it away from Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Bobby Labonte twice, Tony Stewart, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Burton, Dale Jarrett and Mark Martin all had the lead in the race, but it was Jamie McMurray taking the lead away from Martin on lap 304 that decided the race.
Jamie led the last 31 laps and went on to win the UAW-GM Quality 500 from the Charlotte Motor Speedway in only his second career start, faster than anyone else.
As the car rolled into victory lane, I'm sure a lot of people were catching their breath and made sure they got a look at the kid who was now looked at as the next superstar in NASCAR.
"...I'm freakin' nervous!" were Jamie's infamous words in the post-race interview.
As he cracked open a Coors Light, Chip Ganassi came over and grabbed him with a big smile—still an incredible victory.
Ironically enough, he didn't even run the next race at Martinsville. In order to keep his rookie status for 2003 McMurray could only run a maximum of six races, so Mike Bliss took the helm of the 40 car at Martinsville.
It was a win that propelled Jamie McMurray to greatness. Shortly after he won his first two Nationwide Series races, and it was announced he would compete for Rookie of the Year in 2003 in a third Chip Ganassi car, the No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge.
Looking back eight years later, sometimes things happen for a reason. Who would've won this year's Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 if Jamie McMurray had never won this race? It's an interesting thing to think about, and Hollywood's Russ Wheeler story seemed that much more real!
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