He was closing fast. The driver, the crew chief and the co-owner all understood this reality the moment the crowd of nearly 180,000 rose to its feet on Sunday evening at Daytona International Speedway and unleashed a roar so loud that it could signal only one thing: Junior was coming.
As leader Jamie McMurray—the same Jamie McMurray who had been released by Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last season after four disappointing years—charged into Turn 3 with less than a mile to go to the checkered flag, he looked in his mirror and had one thought: Crap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just weaved through a crowd of NASCAR's best drivers at 185 mph and slingshotted from sixth to second place in a matter of seconds. Suddenly this Great American Race, which had been low on highlights and long on delays (red-flagged twice for a total of 2 hours, 25 minutes because of a recurring pothole just off Turn 2) had become riveting theater.
McMurray, like everyone else round the Speedway, knew that Earnhardt, for all his recent struggles, remains a master at Daytona, as good as anyone at working the draft on the high banks. With Junior nearing his back bumper, McMurray mashed the gas. His crew chief, Kevin Manion, sitting atop the number 1 pit box, closed his eyes, unable to watch the final seconds. One of McMurray's co-owners, Felix Sabates, yelled, "Oh, no! Not Earnhardt!" Sabates knows the Earnhardt history at Daytona as well anyone: how Dale Sr. won more races at the track (34) than any other driver; how Dale Sr. had died on the final turn there in 2001; and how his son, Dale Jr., was a 12-time winner at Daytona. Now here was Junior, looking to rebound from a dreadful 2009 season (sidebar), bidding for an implausible come-from-behind victory at his family's best track. Sabates sensed that another chapter of the Earnhardt legend at Daytona was about to be written. "Not Earnhardt," he said again to no one in particular on pit road as the two drivers barreled into the final turn.
But then McMurray hit the throttle again and experienced something that he rarely had when he drove for Sabates and Chip Ganassi in his first stint with the co-owners, from 2003 to '05: an abundance of power under the hood. He beat Earnhardt to the finish line by .119 of a second to win just the fourth race of his eight-year Cup career, capping one of the most bizarre 500s in recent memory. "Chip and Felix took a chance on me when not many people would," said McMurray, 33, shortly after he climbed out of his Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Wiping back tears, he added, "This is the best way for me to pay them back."
There can be no such thing as an upset anymore at Daytona. After all, fluke winners are now common at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, where restrictor plates on the engines keep speeds down and the cars in large packs, leveling the playing field between the have and have-not teams. Still, this year's 500 was a breakthrough, a coming-of-age victory for the fledgling Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team, which was formed in November 2007 when Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc.—the same DEI that was founded by Dale Earnhardt Sr. back in 1982.
"We don't have the number of people on our payroll that some of the bigger organizations like Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing do," says Ganassi of his two-car team. "That's just a fact of life. But we don't need four cars to compete with them each week. We're smart with our resources."
Unlike his EGR teammate, Juan Pablo Montoya, who finished eighth in the final standings last year (and was 10th on Sunday), McMurray didn't qualify for the 2009 Chase. Driving for Roush Fenway, McMurray won at Talladega last fall but had just four other top 10 finishes all season. Owner Jack Roush informed McMurray in October that he wasn't going to re-sign him for 2010, which prompted McMurray to call an old friend a few days later. "I want to come back," McMurray told Sabates. "I'd love another chance."
Sabates had given McMurray his shot at the big time in 2002, when McMurray was a middling driver in the Nationwide Series. However, Sabates, who has been a NASCAR team owner since 1987, saw in the native of Joplin, Mo., an intriguing blend of aggressiveness (which is needed to win on restrictor-plate tracks), superior car control (which is needed to consistently finish in the top 20 at the Cup level) and charisma (which is needed to attract sponsors). When regular driver Sterling Marlin injured his neck in an accident at Kansas Speedway in September 2002, Sabates persuaded Ganassi to put McMurray, who had been a world go-kart champion at age 15, into the seat. McMurray responded by winning at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second Cup start—still one of the most unlikely victories of the 21st century in NASCAR.
McMurray spent the next three seasons driving the number 42 Dodge for Ganassi Racing but never finished higher than 11th in the standings. Still, rival owner Jack Roush liked what he saw in McMurray and offered him a ride in 2006. The split from Ganassi was amicable. "We would have dinner all the time even when he wasn't driving for us," Sabates says. "Roush offered him more money than we could pay, simple as that.... After Jamie called and asked to come back to the team last October, I talked to Chip the next day, and we agreed that it was a good idea."
Even though EGR is a relatively small operation in the Cup series—seven teams field more cars—it boasts competitive resources. The team has an engine alliance with Richard Childress Racing that is the envy of nearly every driver in the garage. More than 115 engine builders work full time in the Earnhardt-Childress shop, which makes it one of the biggest programs in the sport. "Since we've merged we've never had a problem with horsepower," Ganassi says. "Our engines are as strong as anyone's."