NASCAR Race Weekend Central

MPM2Nite: The Luck of the Irish

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% 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.

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 owners’ championship with a handful of races left in the season. So, a lot of people were stunned when Chip tapped rookie 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 fourth, 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, 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 seventh-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 fives 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 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-five 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. 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-five 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% 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. 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-Ganassi 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 40 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 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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