The Cool Down Lap · Doug Turnbull · Monday March 1, 2010
The 2010 season for Jamie McMurray started on a note higher than Mariah Carey could ever sing. After running fast throughout Speedweeks, the new driver of the No. 1 Chevy captured the Daytona 500 and followed that triumph with an emotional, tiring whirlwind of press conferences and other media appearances that endeared him to NASCAR Nation. Refusing to let distractions get in the way, though, he capped the best five-day period of his racing life by putting the Bass Pro Shops car on the pole at Fontana that Friday, part of a 1-2 sweep of the front row with teammate Juan Pablo Montoya in the No. 42. Though McMurray faded quickly and ended up 17th in the race, he received a fresh jolt of momentum and energy this week, as McDonald’s cemented a deal to join the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team as a primary sponsor for 11 races this season – ensuring the team has the funding to run full-time.
But as we’ve seen in the sport so often these last few years, the momentum from the Great American Race can only last for so long. In Las Vegas, a city where so many marriages begin (and end) and where quite a few honeymoons take place, McMurray’s post-Daytona 500 honeymoon came to a screeching halt.
Indeed, the positive bubble surrounding the team burst in a big way before the halfway point in Sunday’s Shelby American at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. On lap 93, right after a restart, McMurray caught a case of “Roush Flu” and bobbled loose under Montoya entering turn 3, tagging the left rear of the Target Chevy in the process. That caused both cars to lose control, sending Montoya into the wall while collecting the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge of pole-sitter Kurt Busch along the way.
In that instant, team harmony burned down in the face of Montoya’s fiery temper. After the wreck, the Colombian yelled a series of expletives on his radio, placing the blame squarely on his teammate for being overaggressive. Montoya was not alone in his anger, as another No. 42 team member also joined the profanity-laced chorus. Heck, even Montoya’s wife joined in the fray, Tweeting in Spanish that the No. 1 car would be better off driven by a clown.
Later on, in an interview in the garage, Montoya was calm but far from apologetic. He claimed that McMurray was trying to back up his Daytona 500 win by “proving himself,” driving over his head and seriously damaging his Chase chances. Far from an isolated incident, the McMurray-Montoya contact was the culmination of a feud that had been boiling throughout the day; in fact, Montoya had complained before the last caution period about McMurray’s on-track tactics, saying that if they continued, he would “wreck his ass.”
Instead, it was McMurray who was the one doing the wrecking. Apologetic following the incident, he did take immediate responsibility and expressed remorse for his actions. Ironically, his newly-adorned McDonald’s Chevy received the least damage in the crash that took both his and Montoya’s car from top 10 running positions. While Montoya returned to the track many laps down, McMurray didn’t go back to the garage for repairs, although he never ran competitively again and wound up well outside the top 30, several laps off the pace.
Why such animosity between teammates? Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it’s clear the public disgust we saw Sunday had been building for far longer. Lost in the offseason shuffle that saw McMurray and EGR settle for each other was the fact that McMurray and Montoya enjoyed a not-so-long-ago, public on and off-track confrontation. At Bristol in March 2009, Montoya bumped into the back of McMurray, causing him to wreck. When Montoya tried to apologize the following Friday in Martinsvile, some witnesses reported they exchanged heated words, and McMurray essentially stiff-armed his apology attempt.
So now there’s chaos in the EGR camp, sure to extend to their post-race meetings this week, proving to be the latest example of how quickly fortunes can change in this sport. Just two weeks earlier, in the post-race press conference at Daytona, McMurray sat on a stage, behind a table, perched next to crew chief Kevin Manion and owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates. As expected, all were beside themselves in shock over their recent victory. McMurray’s return to Ganassi’s team and immediate success immediately shrouded his semi-acrimonious departure from then-Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates after the 2005 season, rubber-stamping the decision to take him back. Also downplayed by the jubilant bunch was Bass Pro Shops’ uneasiness about having the petite, not-so-outdoorsman McMurray pilot their camouflage-accented car.
The power of a victory, especially in NASCAR’s biggest race, is astounding. Even with Bass Pro Shops having seemingly one foot out the door of the EGR organization (as it maintains associate sponsorship on Stewart-Haas Racing’s cars and has cut back its funding on the No. 1 in the last two seasons), the company immediately produced ads congratulating their new driver on his victory. McMurray also dined with Bass Pro shops owner Johnny Morris in Las Vegas, mending fences and building a possible foundation for an extended partnership. Enjoying all the adoration, McMurray and the No. 1 team gained a swagger that neither the driver or team could attest to for at least a couple of seasons. And let us not forget the media, who immediately raised McMurray to a Chase contender after Daytona and (this writer included) have gushed over this underdog’s redemptive return to success.
But in the midst of McMurray’s recent gains, his teammate has experienced nothing but short-term pain, all while seeing the spotlight stolen away. Let’s not forget, it was Montoya who was the darling of the sport after a breakthrough 2009 season birthed him not only a Chase appearance but also career highs in top 5 and top 10 finishes. While he did not win a race, he virtually cemented himself as a 2010 Chase, and possibly, title contender. But that momentum has completely dissipated, as he’s gone from a 10th at Daytona to two straight 37th place finishes that have left him already 127 points outside the Chase.
Now, Montoya is known for running his mouth and likely regrets saying some of Sunday’s emotional tirade; however, those words aren’t the type that’ll lose their sting with an “I’m sorry” anytime soon. Chip Ganassi’s rack of broken ribs likely did little to protect his skipping heart, as both of his speedy machines were rendered from contention in a matter of seconds – along with his drivers’ ability to get along with each other.
So where do we go from here? McMurray was at fault for the crash in Vegas, but Montoya still needs to learn how to handle teammates and other fellow drivers on the track, especially if he wants the chemistry at his race shop needed for consistent success. Since coming to NASCAR, the former open-wheeler has been the biggest star in his stable and still is – no matter how many trophies McMurray takes home this season. But with a driver fully committed to the organization, unlike Martin Truex, Jr. in the No. 1 car last year, Montoya must learn to share the spotlight and the talents at EGR – or this season will be a long one for both teams.
Back at the EGR headquarters this week will surely be tense, as Ganassi will have to meet with not only his two star drivers, but also the crew chiefs and other relevant team members and management involved in this confrontation. Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall in that meeting, after the words that the No. 42 contingent had for McMurray? Jamie will be the apologetic figure this time around, but will Montoya respond the way McMurray reacted last year? Will McMurray and Montoya’s stint as teammates end up like Kevin Harvick and Jeff Green’s in 2003? They had previous run-ins before a wreck at the spring Richmond race, and ensuing comments from Green led to his termination at Richard Childress Racing. Or will EGR’s drivers work through their conflict like Tony Stewart and Denny Hamlin did in 2007, after wrecking at Daytona and trashing each other on TV?
Montoya would be wise to choose the latter approach, especially considering his current tenuous position in the standings. He needs to bury the hatchet between himself and McMurray before this budding feud splinters the team and puts both drivers’ Chase hopes on the chopping block.
Listen to Doug on The Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop racing show with host Captain Herb Emory live from Atlanta Motors Speedway this Saturday, from 12-2 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. until 1 p.m., on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and on wsbradio.com. Doug also hosts the “Chase Elliott Podcast” and the “Bill Elliott Racing Podcast” on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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