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Jamie McMurray was largely unknown when Chip Ganassi tabbed him to substitute for the injured Sterling Marlin in October 2002. He became an overnight sensation a decade ago Saturday with his win at Charlotte in just his second-career start.
Throughout the summer of 2002, rumors swirled around Chip Ganassi Racing's future. They had locked up the Texaco Havoline sponsorship that had been a major part of the sport for 16 years - all with the No. 28 Ford owned first by Harry Ranier and then by Robert Yates - and any number of major names were linked to the ride. Ricky Rudd, embroiled in an acrimonious split from the Yates team, was the driver who's name came up the most. Eventual champion Tony Stewart had driven for Ganassi in the previous year's Indianapolis 500, causing some talk that Ganassi and Texaco might buy out the final two years of his contract with Joe Gibbs Racing.
In the end, Rudd wound up with the Wood Brothers - replacing his own replacement at Yates, Elliott Sadler - and Stewart stayed with Gibbs through the 2008 season.
The driver of the No. 42 Havoline Dodge was finally announced in early September at the Richmond International Raceway. His name: Jamie McMurray.
The collective reply from many NASCAR fans: McMu-who?
The kid from Joplin, MO, with the blonde surfer dude look wasn't quite a complete unknown. Almost, but not quite.
McMurray was a graduate of NASCAR's Weekly Racing Series, where he'd won the track championship at I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, MO. He gained a bit attention in 2000, when he won the pole for two of his first three Craftsman Truck Series starts with the TKO Motorsports team at mid-season. The notoriety didn't come from the poles so much as from the rather humorous tidbit that the team couldn't afford to give McMurray his own uniform, and he was wearing the firesuit of former driver Randy Renfrow with his name written in tape over Renfrow's.
McMurray had graduated to the Busch Series ranks in Clarence Brewer's No. 27 Williams Travel Centers Chevrolet for 2001. That year he struggled with just a trio of top-10 finishes - all 10ths - but his performance had improved greatly through the first six months of the 2002 season. Entering the Richmond weekend he had nine top-10s, including his first two top-fives. At Richmond, he chased Dale Earnhardt Jr. to the finish line.
The night after that runner-up result, Ganassi's two Dodges driven by Jimmy Spencer and then-point leader Sterling Marlin were involved in a vicious turn three crash. Marlin took several minutes to climb from the No. 40 Dodge and was visibly in pain as he wrenched himself through the window. Three weeks later, having lost the point lead he'd held since March and on a downward spiral, he crashed again after an accidental tap from Jeff Burton as they raced in a pack of cars. This time, he suffered a cracked vertebra in his neck.
Seven races early, Sterling Marlin's season was over, and seven races early, the Jamie McMurray era at Chip Ganassi Racing had begun.
McMurray ran with the lead pack for much of his Cup debut at Talladega, but he stalled the car on his final pit stop. Because the race ran caution free, he had no chance to make up the lost ground and finished 26th.
The following week, the Winston Cup Series traveled to Charlotte for the UAW-GM Quality 500. Marlin had won the event handily the previous year, and - prior to the Kansas wreck - Charlotte was tabbed as the race where he could potentially revive his title hopes. Instead, the Coors Light team was taking their race-winning car back to the track with a kid who had all of 500 miles of experience in a Winston Cup car, and zero of those on a 1.5-mile track.
The team caught a bit of a break when qualifying was rained out. The No. 40 car was ranked fifth in points after Marlin's 29 races and McMurray's one, placing the "Silver Bullet" on the inside of row three. More rain delayed the start of the race by several hours, but it finally got under way and ran to its scheduled conclusion.
Similarly to the Coca-Cola 600 that May (and many Charlotte races since), Jimmie Johnson led much of the first 300 miles of the race. Kurt Busch and Bobby Labonte also took extended stretches in the lead. McMurray hovered near the top of the pack, however, and he had just moved out front when Todd Bodine triggered a massive pileup on the front-stretch on lap 231.
Never again would the lead change hands on the race track.
McMurray held the lead with Labonte - the Cup champ from two years prior who was in the midst of an awful season - never too far behind. Labonte made his final pit stop a little early due to a flat left front tire, and McMurray ducked onto the pit lane nine laps later. When he rejoined the race, Labonte had caught him - the benefit of running those nine laps on fresh rubber - but once the other leaders made their stops McMurray again began to stretch the gap.
Over the final 10 circuits, the wily veteran, tasting success in a season full of disappointment, began to eat back into McMurray's lead. He stalked the silver Dodge, daring the kid to make one error as they worked through lapped traffic. As they swept under the white flag to begin the final lap, the lead was down to mere car lengths. McMurray held the gap through the first two corners and down the backstretch. Entering the third turn, Labonte took his car high, hoping desperately that it would stick and allow him to sweep by on the outside for the win.
The date was October 13, 2002, and Jamie McMurray had set the modern-era NASCAR Winston Cup record for the fastest driver to his first win: two races. It has since been equaled by another overnight superstar, Trevor Bayne in the 2011 Daytona 500.
Since 2002, McMurray has gone on to win five more races, including three in 2010. Those victories included the two biggest stock car races of the year, the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400. Fittingly, his third triumph and his most-recent to date came at Charlotte in the same event where he made history and shocked the racing world. This evening, he starts 30th in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte as he celebrates the ten-year anniversary of that amazing night.