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McMurray Is Back In The Comfort Zone

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 7 2010

Jamie McMurray pays back his boss as he hits the finish line to win this year's Daytona 500. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

For thousands upon thousands of race-car drivers in America, Roush Fenway Racing is not just a NASCAR team, it’s also an answer to prayers. It’s a top team, a winning team, a team that does things right and a team which has the people and equipment to turn drivers into Sprint Cup champions.

But for Jamie McMurray, driving for Roush was just plain uncomfortable. A bad pairing for him and for Roush, he said this week.

“That was a tough place to fit into,” McMurray said. “It’s such a big organization. They have so many great race-car drivers over there that it’s kind of hard to find your place.”

A native of smallish Joplin, Mo., McMurray learned to drive on the rural dirt tracks of the Midwest.

His big break came in the fall of 2002 when, at 26, he was plucked from the Nationwide Series and named to replace an injured Sterling Marlin on Chip Ganassi’s Cup team. He took the Ganassi car to Victory Lane in Charlotte in his second start.

In three-plus seasons with Ganassi, he piled up a nice stack of top-five and top-10 finishes but never won again.

In a bit of a break from NASCAR tradition, he negotiated a deal to drive for Roush while still driving for Ganassi during the 2005 season. His announced move to Roush came in July of 2005 and it came with a curt response from Ganassi, who said in a prepared statement, “Jamie’s made a decision to go in another direction after we’ve both fulfilled the commitment that we made to each other in 2002.”

Going to work for Roush may not have been an answer to McMurray’s prayers but it sure looked like it would elevate him to the top tier of Cup. Roush drivers won 15 times in 2005. Every one of the team’s five full-time drivers won a race that year.

But McMurray would not win a race in a Roush car until 2007. He would not win again after that until 2009.

When it came time for Roush to chop a driver to meet the new NASCAR rule of four drivers per team only, it was McMurray who left.

It didn’t take long until McMurray found a new boss – his old boss, Ganassi of Earnhardt-Ganassi signed him for 2010.

“I’ve said before,” Ganassi said of hiring McMurray for a second time, “you know, when it’s time to hire a driver, you always take the best guy that’s available. And that’s a mantra that our team has lived by for a long time.”

And it didn’t take long for McMurray to click with his old/new boss – he won the season-opening Daytona 500. The Big One, and a debt was repaid.

“I’ve been trying for almost 25 years to find Victory Lane on the 500,” Felix Sabates, Ganassi’s long-time partner and, like McMurray, a Missouri guy, said in February. “Been a few times with Chip on the Rolex Series, Nationwide Series. I got this big ring. This was a hell of a nice Valentine’s Day present, Jamie, to us.”

In the nine races since the victory in the 500, McMurray has been highly competitive several times. Only a late, photogenic pass by Kevin Harvick kept him out of Victory Lane at Talladega two weeks ago.

“Well, I mean, I just seem to be a lot more comfortable at EGR than my years at Roush,” McMurray said this week. “I think coming back here, they build really fast cars. It’s a lot different environment.

“I think it’s hard for me to explain the differences emotionally, the way I felt a year ago and the way I feel right now. I mean, I guess really all I can tell you is just that the people that are around me every day, the people that have been around me for the last four or five years, I don’t really feel any different, but all those people keep telling me how happy I act, how much more laid back I act than what I did a year or so ago. That’s not something you plan to do or you can do intentionally. It just kind of happens.

“I think a lot of it has to do with feeling more at home, feeling more relaxed. I mean, I’ve just run a lot better also.  Performance-wise maybe the finishes haven’t been way better, but on-track performance has been a lot better than my time at Roush I think that just makes you be more laid back in general.”

McMurray said he takes zero pride in showing the folks at Roush Fenway that they made a mistake by not keeping him.

“I just see it as I’ve gotten this great opportunity to come back to EGR and just trying to make the most of it. So I don’t look at it as vengeance or however you worded it. I just look at it as a good opportunity.”

McMurray is now enjoying two good opportunities as he has signed on to drive a Nationwide Series car for the team owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Since taking the job three races ago, McMurray has finishes of sixth, 14th and third.

“We had a really good run at Richmond,” he said. “I thought we had the best car at Talladega.  So, yeah, I mean the three races I’ve run for him, it’s been a lot of fun so far.  Enjoy working with that team. Look forward to run whatever other races I get to race with them.”

This weekend, McMurray will be in the Cup car at Darlington. He has not won in a Cup car there but has in a Nationwide car.

“When I listen to my stats from there, they don’t sound that good,” he said. “That’s been one of my better racetracks. We have had really fast cars there. Really I don’t ever remember going there and not running well, we just haven’t finished well.”

The way things are going for McMurray these days, nobody will be surprised if he finishes well enough to earn a trip to Victory Lane.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, May 7 2010
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