The screaming on the radio was so deafening, Jamie McMurray couldn’t clear his head. The third-closest finish in NASCAR history had just taken place, and the 31-year-old from Missouri had seen too many close calls go against him to count his chickens before they hatched.
It took the better part of 30 seconds to mouth the words he’d dare not believe to be true – until he heard the answer from someone else.
“As I went into turn 1 I gave it a second for it to be clear, and I’m like, Who won?'” McMurray explained. “And they were like, ‘You did.'”
“I just started beating my fist against the wheel and the leg braces, almost into pain, I was just so excited.”
That left the tear ducts working overtime, and justifiably so. The crying has led to criticism once the smoke cleared from another Daytona classic, but don’t fault McMurray for getting emotional; it’s only natural for a win to mean so much to a man whose career has been a search for higher meaning. A Cup road that appeared to be filled with riches – McMurray won in just his second start – has spent years in a detour through the highway of fools’ gold. Back then, looks could be deceiving; a rookie filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray set a record that fall in cementing his claim as to who we all thought was a rising star – so much so that he couldn’t fully appreciate his first win before both luck and circumstances turned against him.
“When I won Charlotte, I had run some truck races and some Busch races, but I don’t think I grew to appreciate how hard it is to win at this level,” said McMurray, looking back at that fateful day in October, 2002. “At Charlotte, it was over and I went home and I went to sleep, and I didn’t put much thought into it.”
“I probably won’t go to sleep tonight.”
I’m sure he didn’t, although it’s a far cry from the several sleepless nights he’s had during the past four hard luck years. If there ever were a School of Hard Knocks, McMurray would be placed at the head of the class – in particular, he’s been a quick study in Oh-So-Close 101. Twice, in ’04 and ’05, McMurray found himself in perfect position to make the Chase for the Nextel Cup heading to the final regular season race at Richmond. Twice, McMurray had to face reporters, his team, and most of all, himself – after watching his chances slip away. One of those years, McMurray at least recovered for the $1 million bonus offered to 11th place in the final standings – but that was little consolation in the midst of three straight winless seasons driving Chip Ganassi’s No. 42.
In search of an answer, McMurray broke his contract – and Ganassi’s heart – by making the move from Dodge to Ford, driving for legendary Jack Roush since ’06. It appeared to be perfect solution – but what was supposed to be a career-defining move instead became a lesson in how getting over the hump was harder than simply switching teams.
“When I moved to Roush, I thought with the success that they had in 2005 – with the amount of races that they won and how many laps they led – that that’s what I needed,” McMurray explained not long ago.
It wasn’t. During a nightmare that saw him finish 25th in the final standings, McMurray spent the better part of last season getting picked apart from all angles. By the beginning of this year, pretty much every member of the media had him pegged to be the first driver fired. Confidence was down, the future was bleak, and expectations appeared out of reach. But deep down, McMurray never lost the sense of drive that got him his chance to race at the sport’s top level.
“If you don’t wake up every single morning and think you’re gonna be on the pole and think you’re gonna win, you’re not going to,” he claims. “This sport is so mental that if you don’t feel that way, then you should find something else to do.”
So he didn’t – and that’s when Larry Carter entered the building. Out of options, it was actually McMurray last season that went to Carter and asked for support when Roush had put the rebuilding effort for the No. 26 solely in the drivers’ hands. Carter had plenty of other options at the time – but knew from a special source that McMurray was a driver capable of being saved.
“Donnie Wingo [McMurray’s old crew chief at the No. 42] is probably my best friend in the garage, and he’s been around this sport – I think he was a crew chief when he was, like 9 years old – and he has a lot of experience,” explained a level-headed Carter Saturday night. “When Donnie and Jamie worked together, they ran well every week, so there was never a question in my mind (that) Jamie McMurray could drive a racecar.
“So I felt like it was a good opportunity for me because when you’re a crew chief, I’ve worked with some guys that maybe aren’t as talented as other guys are and if you can align yourself with [a] good racecar driver it can make you look good. Just like sitting up here tonight, it’s not really me because this guy drove his tail off.”
Of course, McMurray had to – when you’re riding a 166-race winless streak, ending that drought is never easy. Fighting an early penalty for passing below the yellow line, the Irwin Ford fell as far back as 35th before charging back to the front. Even during the last lap, it took a perfect side draft at exactly the right time for McMurray to just edge his nose in front of Kyle Busch – claiming that lucky break that’s eluded him for way too long.
“It’s hard to explain to somebody that feeling of not only seeing your team work hard, but also you,” as McMurray tried to justify the tear ducts runneth over. “I don’t know that there’s anyone who has went from the season that I had last year to getting a win at Daytona. To have it here, and finish in the way that we did, it’s a little bit emotional and it’s because you worked so hard for something and you finally get it. It’s hard to explain to somebody, the feeling that you have.”
Good for him. For all us media knew, we pegged McMurray to be selling vacuums door-to-door at this point in the summer. Instead, he stepped into the vacuum of a side draft at exactly the right time, and now his season – and his career – may finally reach the potential he’s been dreaming of for all these years.
No wonder he cried.
Remember, this commentary isn’t the only column Tom Bowles does; make sure to catch his Secret Star of the Race in the Monday edition of the Frontstretch Newsletter. If you’re not getting the newsletter, you’re missing out on all the latest news, information, and commentary from some of your favorite Frontstretch writers. How could you NOT sign up for something that’s FREE! Gravitate here to add your name to the list today.