CONCORD, N.C. — Jamie McMurray’s career came full circle at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Saturday night, where he returned to Victory Lane eight years after grabbing his first win with the team that gave him a second chance.
The celebration with his Chip Ganassi Racing team was more exuberant because of the circumstances surrounding the 2002 win. In his second race with Ganassi, as a replacement for injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray set a NASCAR record in winning so quickly.
But the team had to hold back a bit on the party out of respect for Marlin, who had broken his neck in an accident two weeks earlier.
“When I won here in 2002, you’re in a situation where I don’t know any race car driver who wants someone else to get in their car and win,” McMurray said. “I knew that was hard on Sterling. As soon as I got into Victory Lane, I remember telling myself ‘Be very gracious and be respectful to Sterling because this is hard for him.’ He was home with a broken neck, you win with another team, this isn’t your team.”
But the circumstances were far different this time around.
Back with Ganassi and co-owner Felix Sabates after he was let go last season from Roush-Fenway Racing, McMurray has grabbed wins at some of the biggest venues in NASCAR. He won the season-opening Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and now Charlotte.
He’s made a full turnaround in his career, which seemed in jeopardy this time last year, with Ganassi, who has slowly rebuilt his program.
“This is completely different because this team, and I talked to Chip about this today, about where his Cup organization was a year ago and where it is right now and the success that we’ve had,” McMurray said. “So (this win) is different circumstances. I feel this is my team, and it’s a team that has been put together over the past 11-12 months, and it’s mine.”
McMurray passed Kyle Busch on a restart with 21 laps to go and cruised to the win in his Chevrolet.
Ineligible for the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, McMurray was better than all the title contenders to become the first non-Chase driver to win a Chase race at Charlotte since the format began in 2004.
Busch led a race-high 218 laps but had to settle for second in a Toyota after McMurray easily passed him on the restart. Busch had to hang on for his spot when four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson charged hard over the closing laps.
“Nobody can put it perspective for me, it’s very, very disappointing,” said Busch, who was apoplectic on his radio about the debris caution that wiped out his lead. He also ranted about the restart that allowed McMurray to move ahead of him, and refused to accept that second place was a decent day.
Johnson, who spun early and dropped to 37th, completed an improbable comeback in a Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Denny Hamlin was fourth in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, and lost more ground to Johnson in the Chase race.
“I’m so relieved. I’m glad to be sitting in here in third spot and leading the points,” Johnson said. “It’s amazing what goes through your mind when you’re sliding sideways on the back straightaway. I saw my hard work for the year and dreams of being a five-time champion go away, and fortunately I got the car turned away from the inside wall.
“At that point, it kind of scared me straight. Like, OK, just stay smooth, we can salvage a decent finish. Maybe we don’t win, maybe we don’t be in the top five, but I know we can get a good finish out of this if we can keep our composure and we did.”
With five races remaining, Johnson holds a 41-point lead over Hamlin. They go next to Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson and Hamlin have combined to win the last eight races.
Greg Biffle and Roush-Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth finished fifth and sixth in Fords, Joey Logano was seventh to put all three JGR cars in the top seven. Kevin Harvick was eighth and maintained the third spot in the standings, but dropped 77 points behind Johnson.
David Reutimann and David Ragan rounded out the top 10.