Salvation can come from a pothole, which twice delayed the 52nd Daytona 500 but helped Jamie McMurray get a grip on his ride and hold off Dale Earnhardt Jr. to take a career-reviving victory
He was closing fast. The driver, the crew chief and the co-owner all understood this reality the moment the crowd of nearly 180,000 rose to its feet on Sunday evening at Daytona International Speedway and unleashed a roar so loud that it could signal only one thing: Junior was coming.
As leader Jamie McMurray—the same Jamie McMurray who had been released by Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last season after four disappointing years—charged into Turn 3 with less than a mile to go to the checkered flag, he looked in his mirror and had one thought: Crap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just weaved through a crowd of NASCAR's best drivers at 185 mph and slingshotted from sixth to second place in a matter of seconds. Suddenly this Great American Race, which had been low on highlights and long on delays (red-flagged twice for a total of 2 hours, 25 minutes because of a recurring pothole just off Turn 2) had become riveting theater.
McMurray, like everyone else round the Speedway, knew that Earnhardt, for all his recent struggles, remains a master at Daytona, as good as anyone at working the draft on the high banks. With Junior nearing his back bumper, McMurray mashed the gas. His crew chief, Kevin Manion, sitting atop the number 1 pit box, closed his eyes, unable to watch the final seconds. One of McMurray's co-owners, Felix Sabates, yelled, "Oh, no! Not Earnhardt!" Sabates knows the Earnhardt history at Daytona as well anyone: how Dale Sr. won more races at the track (34) than any other driver; how Dale Sr. had died on the final turn there in 2001; and how his son, Dale Jr., was a 12-time winner at Daytona. Now here was Junior, looking to rebound from a dreadful 2009 season (sidebar), bidding for an implausible come-from-behind victory at his family's best track. Sabates sensed that another chapter of the Earnhardt legend at Daytona was about to be written. "Not Earnhardt," he said again to no one in particular on pit road as the two drivers barreled into the final turn.
But then McMurray hit the throttle again and experienced something that he rarely had when he drove for Sabates and Chip Ganassi in his first stint with the co-owners, from 2003 to '05: an abundance of power under the hood. He beat Earnhardt to the finish line by .119 of a second to win just the fourth race of his eight-year Cup career, capping one of the most bizarre 500s in recent memory. "Chip and Felix took a chance on me when not many people would," said McMurray, 33, shortly after he climbed out of his Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Wiping back tears, he added, "This is the best way for me to pay them back."
There can be no such thing as an upset anymore at Daytona. After all, fluke winners are now common at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, where restrictor plates on the engines keep speeds down and the cars in large packs, leveling the playing field between the have and have-not teams. Still, this year's 500 was a breakthrough, a coming-of-age victory for the fledgling Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team, which was formed in November 2007 when Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc.—the same DEI that was founded by Dale Earnhardt Sr. back in 1982.
"We don't have the number of people on our payroll that some of the bigger organizations like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing do," says Ganassi of his two-car team. "That's just a fact of life. But we don't need four cars to compete with them each week. We're smart with our resources."
Unlike his EGR teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth in the final standings last year (and was 10th on Sunday), McMurray didn't qualify for the 2009 Chase. Driving for Roush Fenway, McMurray won at Talladega last fall but had just four other top 10 finishes all season. Owner Jack Roush informed McMurray in October that he wasn't going to re-sign him for 2010, which prompted McMurray to call an old friend a few days later. "I want to come back," McMurray told Sabates. "I'd love another chance."
Sabates had given McMurray his shot at the big time in 2002, when McMurray was a middling driver in the Nationwide Series. However, Sabates, who has been a NASCAR team owner since 1987, saw in the native of Joplin, Mo., an intriguing blend of aggressiveness (which is needed to win on restrictor-plate tracks), superior car control (which is needed to consistently finish in the top 20 at the Cup level) and charisma (which is needed to attract sponsors). When regular driver Sterling Marlin injured his neck in an accident at Kansas Speedway in September 2002, Sabates persuaded Ganassi to put McMurray, who had been a world go-kart champion at age 15, into the seat. McMurray responded by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second Cup start—still one of the most unlikely victories of the 21st century in NASCAR.
McMurray spent the next three seasons driving the number 42 Dodge for Ganassi Racing but never finished higher than 11th in the standings. Still, rival owner Jack Roush liked what he saw in McMurray and offered him a ride in 2006. The split from Ganassi was amicable. "We would have dinner all the time even when he wasn't driving for us," Sabates says. "Roush offered him more money than we could pay, simple as that.... After Jamie called and asked to come back to the team last October, I talked to Chip the next day, and we agreed that it was a good idea."
Even though EGR is a relatively small operation in the Cup series—seven teams field more cars—it boasts competitive resources. The team has an engine alliance with Richard Childress Racing that is the envy of nearly every driver in the garage. More than 115 engine builders work full time in the Earnhardt-Childress shop, which makes it one of the biggest programs in the sport. "Since we've merged we've never had a problem with horsepower," Ganassi says. "Our engines are as strong as anyone's."
For the first two thirds of the race on Sunday, though, McMurray's problems had nothing to do with power. His car was handling so poorly, sliding all over the track, that he didn't think he even had a shot at the top 10. His father, Jim, was so convinced that McMurray wouldn't challenge for the win that he left the speedway before the race was over. Sabates was crestfallen. EGR had only enough sponsorship for McMurray to run about 21 of the 36 points-paying races this season. The 500 was the team's opportunity to showcase what they were capable of on NASCAR's biggest stage, and now McMurray was floundering in the middle of the pack.
But then McMurray caught a break: A two-inch-deep, nine-by-15-inch hole in the track, which hasn't been repaved since 1978, developed off Turn 2. This forced NASCAR to stop the race with 78 laps remaining to patch the pothole, which was the equivalent of resodding the field in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. After a delay of one hour and 40 minutes, the race resumed. Driver Greg Biffle succinctly summed up what everyone at the speedway—fans, crewmen, drivers, even vendors—thought about having to wait and watch a white gooey type of epoxy dry over the hole: "It sucked."
After the cars rolled back onto the track, 2007 race winner Kevin Harvick—who, like McMurray, was powered by an Earnhardt-Childress engine—dominated. He appeared headed for Victory Lane again when the pothole reappeared after only 39 laps of racing. NASCAR threw another red flag, which lasted nearly 45 minutes. As drivers ate sandwiches on pit road and crewmen played Madden NFL 10 in their pit stalls to kill the time, the sun sank into the horizon and the temperature dropped several degrees, into the mid-40s. This caused the track conditions to change. No longer sun-baked, the track grew cooler and less slick, which suddenly gave drivers like McMurray, who had struggled to find grip throughout the afternoon, new life. His tires began to stick to the asphalt no matter how fast he blasted through the turns.
"The hole in the track ended up helping us," said McMurray, who led fewer laps (two) than any winner in the history of the 500. "Because of the change in the temperature, the car came to us. And that was huge."
McMurray uttered these words while standing in Victory Lane an hour after the checkered flag had waved. A golf cart waited nearby to carry him into the night. This wasn't the most thrilling 500, and it is likely to be remembered more for cracks in the track than for anything McMurray did behind the wheel, but the driver had every reason to keep flashing a smile that looked equal parts happiness and relief as he disappeared from the winner's circle.
Why? "We didn't just win the Daytona 500," Sabates explained. "For us, it's bigger than that. For us, this is going to lead to new sponsors, new opportunities. For us, that's the power of winning this race. For us, that's the beauty of the Daytona 500."
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"Chip and Felix took a chance on me when not many people would," said McMurray of his owners. "This is the best way for me to pay them back."
Return to Relevance?
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s strong run in the 500 suggests that NASCAR's most popular driver may be ready at last to contend
No driver on Sunday was under more pressure than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was coming off the worst season of his 11-year Cup career. While his teammates at Hendrick Motorsports took first (Jimmie Johnson), second (Mark Martin) and third (Jeff Gordon) in the standings in 2009, Junior wound up 25th and failed to win a race. Even his own fans began to speak the dread o word: overrated.
"After the season was over, man, I just tuned out all things NASCAR," Earnhardt said on Sunday morning. "It was the best off-season of my life because it was the first time I can remember that I got away from the sport. I just stayed at home and remembered that I've won races, a lot of big trophies, and that I know how to drive these cars. My confidence came back, and I'm ready now. I honestly, honestly believe we're going to have a hell of a season."
So far, so good for Earnhardt. With two laps left in Sunday's 500, Junior was in 10th place. But then, displaying the nerve and skill that have brought him 18 Cup wins, he drove up through the field, banging cars out of the way and slicing through holes that didn't appear to be there, expertly riding the draft to pass eight cars over the final five miles. His second-place finish (just behind Jamie McMurray) bodes well for the rest of the season. "Damn, I haven't had that much fun in a long f------ time," said Earnhardt afterward. "This is just what we needed."
In the off-season owner Rick Hendrick shook up Junior's number 88 team. He moved Chris Daugherty, one of the most respected engineers in the sport, and mechanic Kevin Hulstein from Martin's team to Earnhardt's. Hendrick also ordered all 85 of the crew members on Martin's number 5 team and Junior's number 88 team to share every scintilla of information, from car setups to aerodynamic data to tire pressures. "We weren't as good at sharing everything as we should have been last season," says Earnhardt's crew chief, Lance McGrew. "Now we've got a ton of cross-pollination, which is huge." One sign that the teamwork was paying off came even before Earnhardt's big finish, when Martin and he qualified first and second for the 500.
Now it is imperative for Earnhardt to stay in the top 12 in points over the season's first 10 weeks. After all, last year he was virtually eliminated from Chase contention by May. "We need to build our confidence as a team," McGrew says, "and show everyone in the garage that we're capable of consistently running in the front."
Photograph by TYLER BARRICK/AUTOSTOCK
TOP OF THE WORLD, MAC Driving again for the team that gave him his start, McMurray got his fourth Cup win—on NASCAR's grandest stage.
BRIAN CZOBAT/AUTOSTOCK (MCMURRAY)
POT LUCK During the two delays for repairs the track cooled, giving McMurray (1) the handling to get Harvick (29).
RUSSELL WILLIAMS/AP (POTHOLE)
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JASON SMITH/GETTY IMAGES FOR NASCAR
THE 411 Better sharing of information with his teammates has already paid off for Earnhardt.