The Frontstretch: MPM 2Nite: The Luck of the Irish by Matt McLaughlin -- Thursday February 18, 2010

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MPM 2Nite: The Luck of the Irish

Matt McLaughlin · Thursday February 18, 2010


After a tsunami of hype in the days leading up to 2010, Daytona is finally behind us… well, sort of. Much has been written and will continue to be written about the infamous potholes that led to unacceptably long downtimes during the event, giving NASCAR yet another black eye. Meanwhile, countless columns and comments on Internet message boards have been devoted to Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s hellbent-for-leather charge through the pack on the final lap, oft compared to his dad’s last win at Talladega. It’s also seen to some as a certain indication that Junior and the No. 88 team are finally going to get it together this year. And more words have been written, are being written, and will doubtlessly continue to be written about one Ms. Danica Patrick, the most famous Nationwide driver ever to have an average 35th place career finish and a 100% DNF percentage.

But while Danica, Dale, and Daytona destruction dominate the headlines, lost in the shuffle is any meaningful mention of one guy who did what nobody else managed to do in the Great American Race…he won the damn thing. Jamie McMurray was a 40:1 longshot on most betting boards, and was considered part of the “field” by others. His Daytona 500 win despite those odds reduced him to speechlessness and tears shortly after hopping out of his car to celebrate the win, by far the biggest moment of his career to date. It was a little awkward to watch, at least for this writer, but fans have been saying they want to see genuine emotion from the drivers, and if nothing else, McMurray’s emotion in Victory Lane Sunday was genuine… as big as life and twice as real. How real? The TV cameras had been rolling for several minutes before he even managed to plug both the sponsor and make of the car he drove to the win, doubtless at the urging of his panicked PR lady and not his own desire to be politically correct.

McMurray’s tears have to be put in context to understand. Yeah, winning the Daytona 500 is still a real big deal. It’s the most watched race on the Cup circuit, and the one even most non-fans know about (at least in a non-Olympic year.) Winning the Daytona 500 is right up there with winning a title or the Southern 500, which they don’t even run anymore, as far as giving a driver some measure of immortality. His name now engraved on the Harvey J. Earl trophy, McMurray will be a part of that special tradition forever (or as long as there are Daytona 500s still run in February.) But what also triggered that emotional outburst, perhaps more than anything else, is the realization his somewhat tortured career path had been fixed – just months after it seemed headed for a permanent dead-end from which it would never recover.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. In the fall of 2002, Sterling Marlin was leading the Cup points fight in the No. 40 Coors Light Dodge. But a pair of brutal accidents left Marlin with neck injuries so severe, doctors advised him he had to get out of the car or risk becoming a paraplegic during the next wreck. Marlin is a tough old coot, and I think he might have taken that risk were it not for the realization that if he was less than 100 percent behind the wheel, he also posed a danger to his fellow competitors. As it was, the year before Marlin had been so savagely and unfairly accused of being the driver who killed Dale Earnhardt the Original on the last lap of the Daytona 500, he’d even been subjected to death threats.

Chip Ganassi gave Jamie McMurray his first chance, and now his most recent chance in Sprint Cup. And, despite long odds, McMurray has never let him down.

That was enough to push Marlin to give up his seat; and suddenly, Chip Ganassi’s Dodge team was faced with a dilemma. They’d lost their cagey veteran driver, but the No. 40 car was still in the hunt for the owner’s championship with a handful of races left in the season. So, a lot of people were stunned when Chip tapped rookie Jamie McMurray to drive the Coors Light Dodge while Marlin healed. To that point, McMurray had competed in 21 Truck Series races and won none of them. He’d competed in 63 Busch Series races with a best result of 4th, at Nazareth of all places.

McMurray finished 26th at Talladega that Fall in his first Cup start, a lap off the pace and never really in contention, backing up those critics who claimed the move was a terrible mistake. But then, something stunning happened. In just his second career Cup start at Charlotte, Jamie McMurray took the lead with 30 laps to go and held off Bobby Labonte by .35 seconds to take the win. That day, McMurray seemed as stunned as anyone to have wound up in Victory Lane. “Holy Cow!” he hollered over the radio over and over to his team.

And just like that, a star was born. McMurray was young, good-looking, and extremely personable. More importantly, he was successful. In the modern era, no driver has scored a Cup victory that quickly. Kevin Harvick was close, winning in just his third start, but my guess is you’ll never see another driver equal or eclipse McMurray’s record for near immediate success.

Armed with the momentum of that win, he went on to post a 7th place finish in the next weekend’s event at Atlanta. The rest of his Cup season finishes were less than memorable, but he did go on to win two Busch races later that year, reaching a whole new level of confidence inside the car.

With the upset victory already in his pocket, McMurray finally seemed to have reached his dream. He landed a full-time Cup ride for 2003 with Chip Ganassi Racing, earning a nice salary and the required fancy ride. He had an uber-hot girlfriend, a former Miss Something he met at the track. And Dodge, newly back in Cup racing, had their new young star, their Jeff Gordon, to battle with the big guns at Chevy and Ford. McMurray replaced Casey Atwood in the manufacturer’s rising star department; and, as an added benefit, he didn’t look like a refugee from the South Park cartoon.

But 2003 didn’t go quite as expected for McMurray. He managed just five top 5s in 36 starts, then averaged a 19th place finish en route to a 13th place finish in the final standings. 2004 went a little better. At the wheel of the Texaco/Havoline Dodge, McMurray managed 23 top 10 finishes in 36 starts, including a second place result at Martinsville and a stunning second place finish to Jeff Gordon at Sonoma. He finished 11th in the standings that year, just missing a trip to the New York banquet. In 2005, McMurray finished 12th in the points, with second place finishes at Texas and, of all places, Daytona.

But while McMurray remained relentlessly upbeat and trusting in his team, it was clear by the time 2005 ended it was time for a change. That summer, Jack Roush had approached McMurray about driving for him in 2006, making an offer for what seemed to be a dream opportunity with the newly-revamped No. 26. All of Roush’s drivers had made the Chase in 2005, and between them, they had amassed 15 victories.

At the end of 2005, Roush Racing was also the hottest team on the circuit. Jack Roush has a pretty good eye for talent, and the list of drivers whose Cup careers he started or advanced is formidable. It seemed a dream arrangement from a PR standpoint, too, as the affable McMurray would replace the then-mercurial Kurt Busch, who’d gotten his butt fired after a run-in with the law in Phoenix late that year.

On paper, it was the perfect match; but for whatever reason, the pairing just never gelled. McMurray wanted it to work. Roush wanted it to work. His team was always foursquare behind McMurray. Yet in 2006, McMurray slid to 25th in the points with just three top 5 finishes. In 2007, McMurray once again stunned the pundits with an underdog win at the Firecracker 400 (shades of things to come), but he still finished 17th in the points. I remember watching McMurray win that night, though I missed most of the race.

July 7, 2007 was the day my Mom died. Over the previous few years, I’d occasionally watched races with my mom either during family functions or in her hospital rooms. Though she was far from a race fan, she was a fan of mine, and tried to at least pretend to be interested in those races for my benefit. Jamie McMurray was her chosen driver simply because he had an Irish surname.

On a day when I, too, was reduced to tears, Mom’s driver won the race against all odds. Mom’s lifetime message to me (along with not putting beers on the good furniture without a coaster and “would you please get a haircut!”) was all about continuing to hope and work hard when it seemed the odds were against you, and never to stop believing. So if you think Jamie cried hard at Daytona Sunday, you should have seen me that Saturday night after the race, sleeping alone at Mom’s place for the final time as my sisters and I began the grim task that involves burying a parent.

McMurray went winless in 2008, then entered 2009 with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head. Under new NASCAR rules, Jack Roush was going to have to cut back to four teams at the end of the season. McMurray’s team wasn’t performing. He needed to step it up. Even a win at Talladega late that year couldn’t turn the tide. DeWalt was leaving the No. 17 team with star driver Matt Kenseth, so McMurray’s Crown Royal sponsorship was being transferred to replace it. Shortly thereafter, it was announced the No. 26 team was being sold – leaving Jamie McMurray out of a ride.

Now, I don’t wring my hands a whole lot over the career misfortunes of NASCAR drivers. I’ve been following this sport a long time, and I know it’s a cruel world. It’s a business where the “What Have You Done For Me Lately…” mentality overrides past performance or early success. You need to be winning races or at least piling up the top 5 finishes if you want job security; unless, of course, your last name happens to be Earnhardt or Gordon. These guys have the mansions and the millions, and I am quite sure most of us could retire comfortably on what McMurray has squirreled away – even at his age.

But I do feel a certain amount of empathy for McMurray and drivers like him, who suddenly find their careers at a crossroads that might lead to a dead end. I, and I’m sure most of you reading this column, have worked hard most of my life to achieve something. (OK, most of you have worked a lot harder at chasing the dream than I have… I’m a writer.) You’ve made personal sacrifices, you’ve gone over and beyond what should be expected of you, and you’ve occasionally hit one out of the park in your chosen profession. You get out of bed, you give a damn, you work hard, and get the job done.

To fight that fight and then to be told your services are no longer needed stings like few things in life. I’ve been unemployed a couple of times, and for all the joking I did with my friends about needing a couple months off to hide the hurt and uncertainty, I didn’t like it. In this economy, you doubtlessly know someone who is unemployed through no fault of their own, and some of you are doubtlessly among the 10 percent of Americans currently out of work.

People struggle, they interview, they cut back on spending, and they keep working at getting back to work. But there’s times laying awake late at night you begin to feel that awful gnawing doubt. Maybe I’m not good enough at what I do. Maybe I’m never going to find a job again. Maybe I’m going to have to downsize my dreams and accept less than I wanted out of life. But you get up in the morning, hoist that cup of coffee in still trembling hands, and you continue to dream and fight. Jamie McMurray had a few of those nights along the way after fighting since childhood to race at the Cup level.

Fortunately, McMurray hadn’t burned his bridges behind him, and overtures were made by Earnhardt-Gannassi Racing to bring him back into the fold. Leaving Roush for the struggling EGR wasn’t a lateral move, but it would keep McMurray racing on the Cup level. The team was struggling, and struggling mightily, but it was a ride and another chance to live the dream. The final sticking point seemed to be the sponsor, Bass Pro Shops, whose marketing people weren’t convinced McMurray projected the rugged, outdoorsy image their company sought. Eventually, Ganassi convinced them otherwise, McMurray signed on the dotted line, and on Sunday their new driver won the sport’s biggest prize for his new team in a bit of a stunner.

Maybe McMurray’s Daytona 500 win shouldn’t have been seen as such as a shocker. Three of his four career Cup victories have come in restrictor plate racing. On plate tracks, you need to have friends to win, and McMurray has many friends and few enemies in the garage. It was interesting to see his competitors and teammates, past and present, all hurrying over to congratulate Jamie on his win. It was something out of a Hollywood script, as a matter of fact, and I’m too damn cynical to go see that film. But yeah, I caught myself grinning as McMurray hoisted the trophy. And even as well as the Daytona 500 pays, McMurray admitted he and his wife planned to head to McDonald’s, continuing the tradition that started with his win at Talladega last Fall. Here’s the weird part, though: McDonald’s doesn’t even sponsor McMurray. I can’t even remember seeing any driver McDonald’s sponsored actually saying they planned to eat a Big Mac to celebrate a win. Popular wisdom says, “Nice guys don’t win.” Well, popular wisdom was proven wrong Sunday. Again.

A long, long, time ago, fresh out of college I took a suit and tie cubicle job as a technical writer. It wasn’t for me. Writing “Turn control of the boiler management valve from manual to automatic by following the Standard Transfer Procedure described on Page 2” wasn’t the racing novel I dreamed of writing. I hate wearing ties. I hate office politics. The problem was, I loved the company I worked for. I loved the owners. I loved my forty or so fellow employees. I was well-liked, and good at what I did. But I woke up one morning and decided, “I can’t do this anymore. I want to do something that involves cars or writing, because those are my passions.” So I gave my notice, and left a good-paying job with a future for an uncertain new day. And I woke up in the middle of the night after I cashed my last paycheck doubtlessly feeling like Jamie McMurray did last November.

On the last day I worked at that company a dear friend, a woman I’d have married had her husband not been wise enough to snag her up first, Marilyn gave me a small plaque that still hangs in my home. It reads, “Trust in God, believe in yourself, and dare to dream.”

So to Jamie McMurray, thanks for living the dream for those of us who still need to hope in uncertain times – especially all Americans looking for work right now. Keep on believing in your bad old self, and Godspeed this season.

“We made us a promise, we swore to always remember, no retreat, baby, and no surrender…” Bruce Springsteen

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Today on the Frontstretch:
Did You Notice? … Breaking Down A Sprint Cup Season Eight Races In
Beyond the Cockpit: Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. on Growing Up Racing and Owner Loyalties
The Frontstretch Five: Flaws Exposed In the New Chase So Far
NASCAR Writer Power Rankings: Top 15 After Darlington
NASCAR Mailbox: Past Winners Aren’t Winning …. Yet
Open Wheel Wednesday: How Can IndyCar Stand Out?


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02/18/2010 06:32 AM

Jamie is the reason that I am a NASCAR fan today. In the summer of 2005 I happened to see him on an episode of MTV Cribs. I had never heard of him but he caught my interest because he was very personable as he gave a tour of his home in Statesville (this was the first house he ever bought)and I have to admit that he was pleasing to the eye. So after watching a couple of races I became an avid Jamie and NASCAR fan. Five years later, I am still enjoying the ride. I hope Jamie can capitalize on this win and have a very successful 2010. Go Jamie!

02/18/2010 06:49 AM

Great, great article Matt. Just as moving as McMurray’s win.

02/18/2010 07:57 AM

this cynical old dale sr fan was so happy to see jamie win on sunday evening. reminded me of when ward burton won. what moved me the most was jamie’s sheer emotion, the fact that he mentioned his dad and his wife before even going down the sponsor list. he showed the sport that he is human and not a drone. i’ve pulled for jamie over the years, he’s been the hard luck kid at many times. seeing biffle in victory lane congratulating his friend and co-competitor was priceless. greg was so happy and moved for jamie.

what drove sr for 20 yrs to win that race is the same thing that drove jamie. a daytona 500 champion is something that no one can ever take away from you. derrick cope’s claim to fame is his 500 win.

congrats to jamie, thanks to ganassi for taking jamie back into the fold. i’m sure “big E” was smiling down on jamie sunday night as well.

02/18/2010 08:15 AM

Jamie Mac is as plastic as they come. Promoted, sponsored, and given rise through the ranks because of his looks, vanilla personality, and non-offensive nature. NOT, his driving ability.

Anyone could have won in the 40 car the year Sterling was injured. When you luck into the top ride in NASCAR you better win – for the crew. Jamie did nothing to prepare that car or that team for victory. This Daytona 500 win also reflects his ability to inherit another teams work – and do his job, nothing more.

Outside of the wins in the 40 car – Jamie has 2 restrictor plate wins. Or as Mark Martin would say “he won the lotto.” Again, that takes more luck – than skill.

Name the last impressive move Jamie made on the track. Name the last time he “rubbed” another driver on the racetrack. Name an instance that personifies the NASCAR that all of the old-school fans on this site talk about daily. It’s pretty tough.

Matt, as for your premature bashing of Ms. Patrick. Remember two things – 1) Jimmie Johnson also sucked in the Nationwide Series. Success, or lack of success there does not correlate to NASCAR’s top series. 2) Joey Lagano recieved similar praise over the past 2 years. And he had an equally rough start.

02/18/2010 09:31 AM

“Anyone could have won in the 40 car the year Sterling was injured.”

I more or less agree with that. Marlin had the best cars that season and Charlotte is more about car than driver, especially of late.

“Outside of the wins in the 40 car – Jamie has 2 restrictor plate wins. Or as Mark Martin would say “he won the lotto.” Again, that takes more luck – than skill.”

I see your point, but I don’t totally agree. For the relatively small number of plate wins Roush has, McMurray has done quite well. If he had been driving for a dominant plate team like Hendrick or DEI or Gibbs, I’d be less impressed. Well, he is driving for DEI now but it’s not like the glory days of the #8 and #15 in the early 2000s. At least I don’t think so.

“Name the last impressive move Jamie made on the track.”

I remember a great save he made at Las Vegas last year.

“Name the last time he “rubbed” another driver on the racetrack.”

What does this have to do with talent?

“Name an instance that personifies the NASCAR that all of the old-school fans on this site talk about daily.”

Well, no. That’s his main problem. He doesn’t fit most people’s image of a NASCAR driver.

“Success, or lack of success there does not correlate to NASCAR’s top series.”

Agree. Sadly the best indicator of success in Cup is whether you sign to a major Cup team or not, not whether you show talent in Busch/Nationwide or not. Most of the Busch champions have busted, while Johnson, Stewart, Kahne and Hamlin have succeeded, but…

“1) Jimmie Johnson also sucked in the Nationwide Series.”

I don’t agree with that. He finished in the top ten in points both times for Herzog Motorsports. Heard from them lately? Considering this was the era when Cup teams were really beginning their domination I think he did fine for the not-so-great equipment he had. (Although I’ll definitely admit he didn’t look like a Cup superstar at the time.) At least he won before getting to Cup. Stewart and Hamlin couldn’t even do that, even in a Gibbs car.

“2) Joey Lagano recieved similar praise over the past 2 years. And he had an equally rough start.”

Logano at least won a title in a regional touring series and won in Nationwide before getting to Cup, which even Hamlin couldn’t say, and now look at Hamlin. Logano will probably succeed when NASCAR reverts to spoilers and the cars are more Nationwide-like. Danica, by contrast, won ONE race in IndyCar and wasn’t as competitive there as Logano won in Nationwide. If you took some equivalent Cup driver like Brian Vickers, do you think they’d have a shot at success in IndyCar? (Casey Mears is the obvious equivalent to Danica in Cup given their one fuel mileage win for a dominant team each but I didn’t use him because Mears has some experience in open wheel…

02/18/2010 09:51 AM

Matt, if you’re not married….you really need to find a wife, dude. You’re becoming a grumpy old man.

02/18/2010 09:59 AM

Carefull with that “ Danica won 1 race on fuel mileage “ routine . You might want to go back and check records on races , all types of races , that were won on fuel mileage . Almost every winner of every Cup race in Michigan or Pocono for instance . Montoya at Infinion . And the list goes on , easily totaling in the hundreds , probably thousands .
Only won a race because of fuel mileage ? Name one winning driver that hasn’t .

02/18/2010 11:09 AM

Yes, but most winners have at least at some point been regular threats to win elsewhere without using fuel mileage. Montoya only has one win, but he was a semi-regular threat for wins last year regardless. Danica hasn’t been in IndyCar and seldom ever leads, and when you consider how MUCH superior IndyCar drivers like Franchitti and Hornish have done in Cup, assuming more out of Danica seems unlikely, unless it’s all car now.

02/18/2010 11:21 AM

DansMom: What a miserable person you are!

02/18/2010 11:55 AM

I like Sean’s comparison of Danica and Casey (who?) Mears.

However, success in the cup level requires a talented driver, a top team, and dedication and work ethic. Just like any other career.

When Jamie McMurray or David Ragan, become competative in a a year or two after they inherit their ride. I’ll give them respect. But, as for now… I’ll agree with Dansmom.

Carl D.
02/18/2010 01:00 PM

Robin… some people just can’t enjoy another person’s joy and accomplishment. Sad.

02/18/2010 01:45 PM

Wow, DansMom, one of the most popular wins in years and he only did his job and nothing more?Its good to see you take up the position of resident expert here. I AM an “old-school fan” and I enjoyed everything about his win, even what you see as “plastic”.

laidback racing
02/18/2010 02:00 PM

Nice Article Matt….I do agree with everone that pointed out the fact that the car jamie won his first race in could have been won by a monkey.. Lee Mccall & Sterling were on a roll that year (would’ve won the championship if not for the injury) and that car had been tested by Sterling…BUT still it is a nice article and since I talked by husband into picking Jamie for his fantasy team I look real smart!

02/18/2010 02:09 PM

Dansmon really needs some help!! This year as last all she does is pick on writers and drivers…if she really tried she could be nice …like me!!…….LOL

02/18/2010 02:21 PM

Well Sean , I’ve watched numerous IRL races where Danica ran very well . She’s also done pretty well in the IRL point standings .
As to the record of Dario and Sam in Cup , well , she hasn’t raced in Cup , and just barely raced in NASCAR period . Give her some time before you start making comparisons .

Carl D.
02/18/2010 02:27 PM

If we’re going to discount McMurray’s win at Charlotte in 2002 because the car was so damned good, that’s fine, but then let’s also discount every win Jimmie Johnson has in cars prepared by Chad Knaus with Rick Hendrick’s money.

I’ve attended many a race at Charlotte where cars we on a rail but the driver didn’t get the win. Not losing a race is a prerequisite for winning it.

While Dansmom (or anyone else, for that matter) can belittle McMurray for realizing his greatest success, at the end of 500 miles and 7 hours it was still Jamie holding the one of the sport’s most coveted trophies.

No Spin
02/18/2010 05:52 PM

DanMom, Why are you trying to spin this. I can count on one hand the number of 500 you could be talking about, words count and hurt, stop trying to down grade this win.

02/18/2010 06:37 PM

All we ever hear about on this site is people who bash drivers for not being “old school,” how today they are too polished, all they do is cater to their sponsors.

Jamie Mac is nothing like Dale, or Cale, or Petty. So why bash Jimmie, and Jeff and give Jamie a free ride?

Don’t all get mad at once – but Jamie did mention his sponsors after the win. It just took him a long time to do so, because he’s not used to giving speeches in victory lane.

David in Texas
02/18/2010 09:48 PM

Matt – long time reader and fan here – I purchased “Eights and Aces” years ago and still have it on a drive somewhere. In short, I enjoy your writing, rough edges and all. I’ve probably read everything you have posted since 1998 or so.

My intent is certainly not to kiss your ass here, as some internet idiot will likely do, just to lend some context to what I am about to say.

Great column, Matt. thanks.

02/19/2010 08:25 AM

DansMom, as happy as I was for Jamie, I don’t disagree with most of what you say, although Jamie was the top performer at Ganassi before he signed on with Roush.

And you lost me when you accused McMurray of getting a ride based on anything but driver ability and then follow up defending Danica Patrick. If ANYONE got their ride on something other than driving ability…

Greg in Atlanta
02/19/2010 03:11 PM

As you have done for years, Matt, another FANTASTIC article!! But … I believe McMurray is a Scottish name … LOL!! McMurray … MacMurray … …