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McMurray content as career comes full circle

18 February 2010

In rare cases, you can go home again.

And as with the case of Jamie McMurray, sometimes you have to leave home before you can realise that you want to go back.

McMurray's Daytona 500 victory on Sunday is the most obvious manifestation of his reunion with car owner Chip Ganassi. Not so obvious are the years of self-discovery that propelled McMurray back to his former boss and helped make the breakthrough win possible.

McMurray is one of the most relentlessly friendly drivers in NASCAR's Sprint Cup garage. He wants to be liked. But it was discontent with the direction of Chip Ganassi Racing that caused him to look elsewhere in 2005 and ultimately to sign a three-year deal with Roush Racing, starting in 2006.

“Part of my decision to leave, some of that came from - we ran so good in 2003, and they decided that they wanted to build all new chassis and redesign them,” McMurray said last week in his motor home, four days before winning the 500. “I was like, 'We just had a great season, and we sat on the pole the last race at Homestead.'

“And we came home from Homestead, and they cut 'em all up. I don't think we really had any data to back up what we were doing. That really upset me, and that kind of set my tone.”

Of course, there was the money. After turning down a succession of other suitors, McMurray accepted a then-unheard-of annual salary of $4 million from owner Jack Roush. That and the attention he received were irresistibly seductive.

“You always look at Jimmie Johnson's car and say, 'Man, if I was in Jimmie Johnson's car, I'd be doing the same thing.'” McMurray said. “I was so lucky at the time that I had Joe Gibbs and Roush and - I had literally everybody but Hendrick calling me and wanting me to be part of their organisation. And I got caught up in that a little bit.

“Instead of just taking what I had and really growing it, I got overwhelmed with everything that was being thrown at me, and the money - and there's just so much that goes along with that. It's not that I was like young at the time, but I was naive in a way, because I'd never been put in that position before.

“I'd been racing forever, and, gosh, you just hoped you could buy new tyres for your car, much less having these teams wanting you. That was a lot. It's the same thing, I think, for football players and every other professional athlete. You have people throwing money at you.”

Along with the move to Roush came culture shock. The vastness of the organisation, which occupies a campus as opposed to a single shop, was overwhelming.

“It's very hard to go around and meet everybody,” McMurray said. “You know, I want to be friends with everybody. I want to know everybody, and I had that relationship at Ganassi, so when I went to Roush, I wanted to be able to keep that - and you just can't.”

If establishing relationships proved more difficult, so was performance on the racetrack. With Ganassi and partner Felix Sabates, McMurray had won at Charlotte in 2002 in his second Cup start, subbing for injured Sterling Marlin.

His second career win didn't come until July 2007, when he beat Kyle Busch to the finish line at Daytona by .005 seconds. McMurray didn't get his third victory until November 1 of last year at Talladega, but by then, he knew he was the odd-man out in a NASCAR-mandated reduction from five teams to four at Roush Fenway Racing.

The victory, however, helped convince Johnny Morris, owner of sponsor Bass Pro Shops, that McMurray was the right driver to succeed Martin Truex Jr. - bound for Michael Waltrip Racing at the end of the season - as the company's face in NASCAR racing.

Ganassi welcomed him back to a team that had made the Chase in 2009 with open-wheel star Juan Pablo Montoya. On his return to what had evolved into Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, McMurray galvanized his #1 Chevrolet team. He and crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion clicked as soon as they talked for the first time.

“People talk about the cars and the engines, but what is a very powerful thing in sports - in all sports - is a team,” Ganassi said after Monday's traditional champion's breakfast for the Daytona 500 winner. “You just can't get a bunch of people and throw them together. That's the fun thing about having Jamie come back. We knew he was a team player.

“These teams are a delicate balance of people, and Jamie brings things together when he comes around. He's always in a good mood. He's always up, and that's a big thing - you need that in this sport.”

Though McMurray is perhaps better equipped to appreciate what he has at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing the second time around, he would be loath to change the past.

“I wouldn't take it back,” McMurray said with conviction. “My time at Roush - I enjoyed that. I would not want anyone to take away that it was horrible. I enjoyed being at Roush - I really did - and Jack became a really good friend of mine. That took three or four years to get all that going.

“If you say exactly what you believe, that's what he wants. It took me awhile to figure that out. I made great relationships, and I learned a lot. I learned that, just because you go and drive for a huge, super race team, it doesn't guarantee success.

“It certainly has been easy going back (to EGR). In going to Roush, everybody already kind of had their favourite guy. There were guys who liked Greg (Biffle), and there were guys who liked Carl (Edwards), and you get there, and it's like 'Gosh, I don't really know if I fit in right now.'

“Going back to Ganassi, you just immediately feel like you fit in.”


by Reid Spencer / Sporting News


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