It is a heart-warming tale worthy of a Hallmark movie: a man down on his luck who returns to his roots only to experience the greatest success, both personally and professionally, in his lifetime.
Yes, Jamie McMurray’s reunion with team owner Chip Ganassi in 2010 was the sweetest of homecomings for the Missouri native and the stuff tear-jerking scripts are made of, but for McMurray it was simply how his eighth full-time season of NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competition unfolded.
And while McMurray is once again collecting a paycheck from the man who gave him his first shot in the Sprint Cup Series, a lot had changed between the time McMurray rejoined Ganassi’s operation for Daytona Speedweeks in 2010 and when Ganassi first tabbed the then 26 year old to substitute for an injured Sterling Marlin in the final six events of the 2002 campaign.
It was in 2002 that McMurray had turned the NASCAR world on its ear right out of the box, driving Marlin’s vacated Dodge to victory lane at Charlotte Motor Speedway in just his second start. While Ganassi’s team had been in championship contention throughout the season, it was an attention-grabbing result as the former world karting champion had, at that point, yet to triumph in either of NASCAR’s other top-tier divisions.
McMurray spent another three seasons competing for Ganassi, coming up winless, but finishing in the top 15 in points each year. But for 2006, he cut ties with Ganassi, joining Jack Roush’s five-car fold at Roush Fenway Racing. He saw sporadic success there, winning the July 2007 event at Daytona Int’l Speedway and scoring a similar restrictor-plate victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in 2009.
Yet by summer 2009, McMurray’s tenure at RFR was coming to a close as both a NASCAR mandate limiting car owners to four teams beginning in 2010 and the loss of sponsorship relegated the soon-to-be-married McMurray as the odd man out with unemployment looming. Ganassi, however, took care of that, welcoming McMurray back to his organization — rechristened Earnhardt Ganassi Racing after merging with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2009.
And just like in their first stint together, McMurray’s on-track performance didn’t disappoint when, on the sport’s biggest stage, he did the unthinkable by winning NASCAR’s Super Bowl, the Daytona 500, in his first race back with Ganassi.
It was a very different and emotional McMurray who hoisted the Harley J. Earl Trophy in victory lane that night compared to the young racer who first triumphed as a substitute driver seasons earlier. Recently married, more mature and with a newfound belief in the power of prayer, McMurray showed a greater appreciation for everything from his team to his sponsors.
“It just means so much. For me to be in the position that I was four or five months ago, to have Chip and Felix [Sabates] and Bass Pro Shops welcome me into their organization, it means a lot. It’s a great way for me to be able to pay those guys back,” a stunned McMurray said afterward.
“When I first came and drove for Chip and Felix in 2002, I was very overwhelmed with the environment that I was put in. [Those were] big shoes to get in Sterling’s car. [It was a] huge learning curve,” he explained. “Certainly coming back here, it’s way different. I’m at a different point in my life.”