2010 is the Year of the Comeback. While perennial contenders Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin and the Busch brothers have all taken turns in victory lane, others – such as Jamie McMurray and Kevin Harvick – have rebounded from horrid 2009 campaigns to grace the top of the scoring tower. McMurray set the underdog tone early, with a win in the season-opening Daytona 500. Since then, he’s placed well in the sport’s big events, nearly winning both Darlington and Talladega before settling for second in each. But his triumph in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 takes his sudden resurgence to a whole other level altogether.
With McMurray pinched out from Roush Fenway Racing last season, he reunited with former boss Chip Ganassi, taking the reins of the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet. While the remarriage proved to be a nice little side story, the addition of McMurray did not appear to be a talent-bolstering move for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing this offseason. Sure, he was the best available driver, and the No. 1 was the best available ride late in 2009. But there was nothing coming from either side to suggest an immediate resurgence was at hand.
However, fate and focus have meshed together into a shocking 1-2 punch ever since, securing a second chance at success for both in what’s become an unlikely 2010 NASCAR fairy tale. McMurray is not a Chase threat right now (he only sits 16th in the standings, having had several races done in by poor racing luck), but his ability to shine in marquee races has meant so much more than money and exposure.
Ganassi has been a veteran owner in both open-wheel racing and NASCAR for years. After success in series such as the Indy Racing League, Ganassi bought the majority stake in Felix Sabates’s B-level NASCAR team and began his stock car venture in 2001, employing drivers Sterling Marlin and Jason Leffler. Initially, the partnership sparked Marlin’s floundering career – he ran well, until a crippling neck injury in late 2002 spoiled his run for the championship. His replacement, McMurray, won in just his second start filling in and contended for wins off and on the next three seasons. But the bright lights and big checks of Roush Fenway Racing lured him away, all while the rest of the Ganassi camp struggled and slipped in the standings. With the 2009 success of Juan Pablo Montoya under his belt, Chip Ganassi seemed poised for more success in 2010 with the Colombian standout – not the guy paddling to shore.
Part of that was where McMurray was headed inside the race shop. The No. 1 team struggled with former driver Martin Truex Jr. in 2008 and 2009, failing to make the Chase while securing just four top-five finishes and one pole in 72 starts. In comparison, Ganassi’s other team, the No. 42, began to find its stride, with Montoya making the Chase and coming close to stealing the championship from Jimmie Johnson.
But this year, it’s McMurray who’s perpetuated the Ganassi team’s greatness. His Brickyard 400 win, combined with his February Daytona 500 hardware and Dario Franchitti’s Indy 500 victory in a Ganassi machine have handed the owner auto racing’s version of the Triple Crown. He has now become the first owner in history to claim victory in all three big races in the same season, outdoing major rival Roger Penske in the process. Many in the racing world braced for this moment after Franchitti’s 500 victory in May, knowing that Montoya, a former 500 winner himself, had almost won the Brickyard 400 last year. All indications were that Montoya would again be Ganassi’s crown bearer Sunday.
But indications mean as much as monopoly money buys at the mall – although you would have never have known it over the course of the weekend’s first two-and-a-half days. Montoya hammered the field from the onset on Friday; with fire in his belly and a shine in his eyes, he steered the No. 42 Target Chevy to the top of the first two practice charts and the pole position for the race Saturday morning. Then, Montoya wasted no time saving equipment and waiting for the race to come to him on Sunday. He pressed hard, taking the lead from Johnson early and immediately pulling away. A slowly deflating tire pushed him to pit road, but a caution just laps before Montoya would have had to have pitted again kept his position in front of the field. The last chapter in what was a sure Montoya victory came during green-flag stops, when he was able to open up a lead on Greg Biffle by pitting a lap before him. It looked like victory was a mere formality with 25 laps remaining.
Unfortunately for Montoya, Sunday’s race kept in step with many others this year, where a late caution for “debris” sent the field to pit road for a necessary final stop. Montoya and Biffle each took four tires, which seemed to be the no-brainer call to make – there were still almost 20 laps remaining. But six, including McMurray, leapfrogged ahead of the leaders by taking two right-side rubbers. Ganassi had chosen to gamble, taking two different strategies in the hope that if Montoya encountered a problem, he’d at least have a second chance to cash in with a car that was running up front.
“We were in the enviable position of running 1-2,” said Ganassi, although McMurray was actually running third at the time. “A lot of times when you’re running like that, you can do a split strategy so you have both sort of angles covered.”
That’s exactly what happened, with McMurray and Harvick up front while Montoya was dumped back to seventh. Those two then started battling in a great two-wide race after the green flag, while Biffle and Montoya attempted to slice through the top 10 and take their respective spots. Unfortunately for Montoya, track position means everything in NASCAR these days, and after he dropped two spots immediately after the restart, he tried a desperate move in diving the corner to make up spots. It didn’t work, causing him to hit the wall and then dart across the track in front of Dale Earnhardt Jr. – who had nowhere to go but slam into Montoya and inflict major damage on both Chevys. Once the easy pick to win the race, Montoya was relegated to a 32nd-place DNF, while Junior went from a top-15 running spot to outside the top 25.
It could have been the end to Ganassi’s quest. As all this shuffling took place, Harvick edged McMurray for the lead heading to the yellow.
At this point, Ganassi is sitting on pit road wondering if fate was about to extinguish a historical feat for his team. With Montoya fuming in the garage and McMurray lined up side-by-side for the final restart with points leader Harvick, failure looked imminent. McMurray, though, unrelenting, took the green flag and immediately pulled away from Harvick on the outside. He never looked back, leaving Harvick to battle Biffle for the second spot while McMurray stretched his lead and took the checkered flag.
Tums used to sponsor Ganassi’s racecars a couple of years ago – you can bet that ol’ Chip could’ve used some Sunday. From mountaintop to the valley and then back to the peak again were the waves of emotions Ganassi felt at the Brickyard 400. Much like his driver Franchitti did after an unsuccessful NASCAR bid in 2008, the car owner could have collected his chips and returned to just the IRL, as his operation appeared on the brink of extinction that same year. Instead, he pieced together the business ingenuity that got him into racing in the first place, bought out Dale Earnhardt Inc., saved his race team, made it better, and then drug it to victory lane. Roger Penske beat Ganassi to Daytona 500 victory in 2008, but Ganassi has now one-upped his old open-wheel rival in a way that no owner ever has. Thanks to the resurgence of McMurray, the Tri-Fecta belongs to Chip Ganassi.
How sweet it is.
Listen to Doug weekly on the Allan Vigil Ford Lincoln Mercury Speedshop with host Captain Herb Emory Saturdays from 12-1 p.m. on News/Talk 750 WSB in Atlanta and online at wsbradio.com. Doug is also a traffic reporter mornings and afternoons on WSB and hosts podcasts on ChaseElliott.com and BillElliott.com.
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