NASCAR Sprint Cup: Regardless of Who Wins, 2010 Belongs to Jamie McMurray

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IOctober 19, 2010

Jamie McMurray began his dream season by winning the Daytona 500.
Jamie McMurray began his dream season by winning the Daytona 500.Geoff Burke/Getty Images

Kevin Harvick dominated NASCAR's "regular season" en route to a 236-point lead heading into the Chase. Denny Hamlin is tied for the series lead with six wins. Jimmie Johnson also has six wins, and may be well on his way to an unheard of fifth straight series championship.

But none of that matters. No matter how the final five races of the season go, and no matter who is holding the Sprint Cup when it is all said and done, the 2010 NASCAR season belonged to a man that is not even eligible to compete for the Sprint Cup, Jamie McMurray.

Jamie McMurray first burst on to the scene in 2002. In what is one of the biggest upsets in NASCAR history, McMurray won his first race in only his second career start, subbing for an injured Sterling Marlin, at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

After that win, the expectations for McMurray went through the roof. He was instantly dubbed "the next big thing," and many race wins, and possible championships were forecast for his future.

Unfortunately for McMurray, those expectations were never quite met. Over the next three full seasons driving for Chip Ganassi Racing, he was unable to make any return visits to victory lane.

He was, however, able to earn 46 top-10 finishes in 108 starts, so while the wins didn't pile up as everyone assumed they would, he became a consistent runner, and even managed an 11th-place finish in the 2004 point standings, having just missed becoming one of the 10 Chase contenders by a mere 15 points.

After the 2005 season, McMurray signed on to drive the No. 26 car owned by Jack Roush. Most people believed that this was the move that would boost McMurray's career. Moving over to one of the most stable teams in the garage was sure to rejuvenate McMurray, and finally all those wins would start piling up.

Yet again, McMurray struggled. In his four seasons at Roush Racing, McMurray only posted 32 top-10 finishes. He was able to get his second and third career victories, both coming on restrictor plate tracks—one at Daytona in the July race, and the fall race at Talladega.

After the 2009 season though, a new rule was put into place that only allowed each team owner a maximum of four cars. That meant that Roush Racing had to downsize, and this left McMurray on the outside looking in, and with no concrete plans for 2010.

Then, late in the year, an opportunity emerged for McMurray to return to drive for his former owner Chip Ganassi. McMurray signed on to drive the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. And as they say, the rest is history.

At the season-opening Daytona 500, McMurray proved his prowess on the restrictor plate tracks, by capturing the biggest win of his career. For a man who, two months earlier, had no idea where his career was going, his Daytona 500 victory was not only popular, but a way to silence the critics in a big way.

Over the next 18 weeks, McMurray captured three pole positions, and earned five top-10 finishes, including three in the runner-up position.

Then, as if Daytona wasn't enough, McMurray was able to kiss the bricks in Indianapolis by winning the Brickyard 400. He started fourth in that event, and ran near the front of the field all day long. McMurray's win at the Brickyard was not only another career-defining moment for him, but it also gave team owner Chip Ganassi the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 trifecta.

By winning both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400, McMurray joined Dale Jarrett and Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to win both races in the same season.

After his win in Indy, McMurray continued to run strong. Over the next 10 races he earned another pole, and had top-20 finishes in nine of those 10 races.

Then, just to put a cap on things, and to further prove that he could be the driver that everyone expected him to be seven years ago, McMurray won his career-best third race of the season last weekend at NASCAR's home track, Charlotte Motor Speedway.

So, while Jimmie Johnson may well be on his way to extending his own record for consecutive championships, it is Jamie McMurray who has had the dream season in 2010.

If you polled the drivers in the garage, and asked them which race they would like to win the most, the two most popular answers would be the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. And now, Jamie McMurray, a man who for years was labeled as overrated and was no longer expected to compete for wins, can say that not only has he won them both, but he did it in the same magical season.