Vito Pugliese · Wednesday October 20, 2010
When the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has come to a close, it will likely be remembered for the actions and success of just one driver.
With five races remaining in the Chase for the Championship, it has become quite clear over the last 10 months who the class of the field has been when it gets down to the big money; who is most deserving of the trophies, headlines, and accolades that he and his team have earned during the 36-week breakneck schedule that is the Sprint Cup Series.
That driver, of course, is Jamie McMurray.
What, you were expecting somebody else? Setting the sport on its ear many times over, we were all reminded again Saturday night why the Chase is merely a formality that is to be endured for two and a half months each fall.
With his third win this season in Saturday’s Bank of America 500, McMurray improved one position upon his runner-up finish at the Coca-Cola 600 on Memorial Day weekend. This year has been special for McMurray for a number of reasons. Sure, he won arguably the biggest single race in motorsports – the Daytona 500 – which he followed up with the second biggest prize at the most famous track on the planet, the Brickyard 400, at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Perhaps most importantly, he actually had a ride; something that in the last days of 2009 didn’t seem like it would ever really materialize. In Daytona’s Victory Lane, McMurray was driven to tears. The tears that flowed were those of joy and gratefulness, as well as the relief from the stress of the previous three months – or, more accurately, three years. Well, that same emotion was bubbling near the surface again Saturday evening in his winner’s interview upon exiting his No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, along with a unique perspective on life and racing in general.
It is a positive attitude that has been on display all season for McMurray, who is most definitely aware of how much he has to be thankful of. Back in August when he was on the bubble of making the Chase, he was less concerned about it than other drivers on the cusp of making or not making the final cut of 12 drivers to compete in the postseason. After finishing third at Bristol, he simply refused to get caught up in the – ahem – drama.
“I’ll let Bono [crew chief Kevin Manion] worry about it,” McMurray said. “He certainly is worried about it, [but] I remember the stress that goes along with that, and I’m really fortunate this year that we were able to win those two big races, because if we don’t make the Chase, it’s not going to be devastating.”
If anything, it has been liberating. Having had one of the consistently fastest cars on big tracks all year, as well as having blossomed into arguably the sport’s best restrictor plate racer, the tracks that make up the majority of the Chase are the types of places McMurray and his team have excelled at all season long: 1.5 mile tri-ovals and a plate track in Talladega.
Still, McMurray refused to succumb to the pressures of qualifying for a convoluted championship that the vast majority of fans have failed to embrace. Instead, he has become a bit of a throwback to a different era; drivers who show up not to contend for titles, but simply to run and win the big money races of fame and prestige that in today’s Sportscenter-centric, bullet-pointed, headline news world, carry more weight than a points system that resets itself after 26 grueling races over seven months have been contested.
In a way, McMurray has completely invalidated the Chase and made it less relevant than it was before.
Check the stats on the man this year: wins in the Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and the fall 500-mile race at Charlotte. He came within a whisker of winning Talladega, and was runner-up for the Southern 500 and Coca-Cola 600. Not exactly a bad way to spend your season, winning or nearly winning the marquee races in the biggest racing series in North America. McMurray and his sponsors will get way more press winning those three events than they would have if they did make the Chase – one that is fostering ratings that continue to spiral out of control worse than Maverick and Goose following a twin engine flame out.
By now, most are familiar with McMurray’s story. He burst onto the scene nine years ago with a win in his second start while standing in for Sterling Marlin, who was motoring towards the 2002 Winston Cup before a crash at Kansas left him sidelined for the rest of the year with essentially a broken neck.
A difficult stretch at Roush Fenway Racing saw him take over the reins of a car two years removed from winning the inaugural Chase for the championship format, but then summarily dismissed following NASCAR’s four-team limit. McMurray made his way back to his first home with car owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates, who had now merged with the remains of Dale Earnhardt, Inc.
McMurray was getting a second chance at Sprint Cup fame with an 11th hour opportunity. It would be in what was the flagship car of DEI, an organization that gave another long-struggling driver a second chance at a career in 2001 – one that produced a similar result.
So after posting his second win at Charlotte, eight years following his first triumph in only his second start, McMurray once again stole the thunder from those who had been commanding the lion’s share of the attention lately: the 12 drivers competing for the Sprint Cup championship.
While some may have been soiling themselves Saturday night over Jimmie Johnson’s innocuous spin and predictable rebound, McMurray narrowly missed clipping a spinning Kurt Busch by mere inches moments before. McMurray dodging Busch’s Charger at the last possible second was appropriate for a number of reasons, and captured the last few years of his career in the span of about 30 feet.
In Victory Lane at Daytona in February, McMurray was reduced to a blubbering pile of goo, overcome with emotion having just won the biggest race on NASCAR’s grandest stage in a most unlikely fashion. He was a bit more composed following his Indy win, but after Charlotte Saturday evening, he was again on the verge of losing it – remaining composed only to make a point to explain his growth over the last few years, and wins.
“I don’t think I ever really got to explain that, why I cried and what was going on there,” he said in his winner’s circle interview. “I had a tough year last year; I found out the power of prayer and what that can do for you. When you get to Victory Lane and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer. And it’s something that is obviously very important to me and my family.”
McMurray has basically built a career over the last few seasons of lofting along on a gust of wind, a wing, and a prayer. Saturday night, that was on display at Charlotte Motor Speedway, and is far more compelling than anything the Chase has had to offer thus far.
Sure, there was some intrigue early on with the 150-point fine of Clint Bowyer, and Tony Stewart running out of gas at Loudon, only to thrust himself back into the discussion a couple of weeks later with a big win at Kansas. McMurray’s story, though, is compelling because it is sincere, genuine, real. You can’t fake tears at this level, though after sitting in an unmuffled, 140-degree, 9,000 RPM carbon monoxide mixer, it’s probably hard for even a seasoned veteran to keep his wits about him.
The same, however, cannot be said for NASCAR’s continued insistence on a championship format that virtually everyone — with the exception of its leadership and those encouraged to sell the product — has at best given the same tilted-head expression your dog elicits when you change his food on him. In Richmond, when it was apparent that McMurray would not make the Chase, his reaction highlighted the importance of winning races rather than contending for a hodgepodge of an NBA bracket, the BCS, and the NFL playoffs that is supposed to determine a 36-race season – in 10 weeks:
“There’s no frustration there at all. Our performance has been really good. We’ve just been a little bit inconsistent,” said McMurray. “I think there are a lot of guys in the Chase who would trade with me right now.”
Four weeks later, there are even more drivers who made the Chase that would gladly trade places with Jamie McMurray.
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