No NASCAR Winston Cup (Grand National) Series rookie has won the Southern 500 at Darlington since Nelson Stacy triumphed in his Ford all the way back in September 1961. Last Sunday, Chip Ganassi Racing's rookie sensation Jamie McMurray almost changed that statistic as he led 21 laps in his #42 Havoline Dodge.

Even though the veteran guile of Terry Labonte eventually won the day in what was the 54th and final Mountain Dew Southern 500 to be held at the 1.366-mile Darlington Raceway on Labour Day weekend, McMurray finished an excellent fourth to a driver who won his first Southern 500 when McMurray was just four years old.

Darlington is known for eating up racecars and using up drivers during a gruelling 500-mile race at the famed egg-shaped oval. But nobody told that to McMurray, who led 21 laps en route to scoring his fifth top-five finish of the season and his third top-five finish in the last five NASCAR Winston Cup Series races.

"I'm so proud of my guys," McMurray said. "They got me out of the pits on time, just a great effort by the whole team. We were really fortunate in that our car was really bad at the start and we were still fast so we kept making our car better every time. It was a very tiring race, especially after having the flu early in the week, but when you car is good it makes you have a lot more drive."

"The fact that my car handled well was huge," McMurray added. "Fortunately, we made the right changes again last night. I don't know that in happy hour that we had that great of a car but Donnie (Wingo, crew chief) and I talked last night and made our car better. That's the most exciting thing to me about this Havoline team is that we've improved the pit stops all year long and then Donnie and I are communicating really good. We passed a lot of racecars the last two weeks. That's very exciting for me as a driver and for the whole race team."

After qualifying 17th, McMurray used patience in the early stages of the race as he was fighting a loose condition with his Havoline Dodge. By lap 95 McMurray was running in the 11th position. When the caution flag waved a few laps later, McMurray headed for pit road with the leaders and was fitted with four fresh tyres and fuel as the crew made a chassis adjustment to tighten up McMurray's car.

Quick work by the Havoline crew enabled McMurray to exit pit road in the 10th position.

As the green flag waved again, McMurray began his assault on the field as he steadily worked his way up to the leaders. By lap 140 he was running seventh and on lap 162, McMurray's Havoline Dodge was shown in the fifth position.

The Havoline crew would make another lightning fast pit stop during a caution period on lap 170 and by lap 178, McMurray was running in fourth place.

A string of caution flags would soon follow, and with each resulting pit stop, McMurray's Havoline crew did not disappoint. With each pit stop, McMurray gained positions exiting pit road. On a restart on lap 247, McMurray was sitting in second place.

During the following green-flag run, McMurray radioed his crew that his Havoline Dodge was still a little loose, but the Joplin, Missouri native was able to hold down third position until the next scheduled pit stop. When it was time, the Havoline crew delivered.

During a caution period on lap 312, McMurray headed for pit road and was serviced with tires and fuel as the crew made another chassis adjustment to tighten up McMurray's Dodge.

The Havoline crew completed their quickest pit stop of the day, and as a result, McMurray left pit road as the leader of the race.

On the restart, McMurray quickly jumped out to a commanding lead and began to pull away from the field. It was beginning to look like the young rookie might lay claim to winning one of the most prestigious and tradition-laden races on the Winston Cup circuit.

But when Robby Gordon brought out a caution on lap 332, McMurray and the leaders headed for pit road where, for the first time all day, the #42 crew were found lacking and McMurray exited pit road in the fourth position.

On the restart, eventual race winner Terry Labonte pulled out to a substantial lead as McMurray mounted his best effort to get back to the front. When the chequered flag waved, McMurray's Havoline Dodge crossed the finish line in fourth-place.

As a result of McMurray's fourth-place finish, he moved up one position in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings. McMurray leaves Darlington 21st in points. In addition, McMurray extended his point total over fellow Raybestos Rookie driver Greg Biffle. McMurray now leads the Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Year point standings by 11 points.

McMurray has now scored five top-five and seven top-10 finishes during the 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series season and has been the Raybestos Rookie-of-the-Race 11 times.

The month of August was a strong one for McMurray and the Havoline team. In the five races during August, McMurray scored three top-five finishes and has back-to-back top-five finishes heading into this weekend's action at Richmond International Raceway.