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For Jamie McMurray, the dream continues

  Jamie McMurray: When you're hot, you're hot! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   FONTANA, Calif.
   It's still life-in-the-clouds for Jamie McMurray, five days after the biggest win of his career. And he's loving it.
   His Daytona 500 win has certainly been popular in the NASCAR garage among his rivals, because McMurray is really just one of the sport's good guys, and a nice guy to hang around.
   "I'm really just amazed at the week I've had," McMurray was saying Friday evening as the sun set at Auto Club Speedway, on the far eastern fringes of Los Angeles – after winning the pole for Sunday's California 500 (183.744 mph).
   Winning the Daytona 500, then winning the pole here, wow, what a week so far.
   So the Cinderella story continues.
   Not only that, but McMurray's teammate Juan Pablo Montoya took the outside of the front row, making Friday a Chip Ganassi show.
   Ganassi's NASCAR operation had run fitfully after early success, until Montoya caught fire last summer.
   And McMurray's win was only his fourth since joining the tour in late 2002, and despite his talents and his popularity he never has quite lived up to what's been expected.
   He won at Charlotte his very first time out, but he didn't win again until the summer of 2007, after moving to Jack Roush's team, at Daytona.
   And he went again winless too long, until winning at Talladega last fall.
   But now he's won the biggest race of his career. How will fame and fortune change him?
   Probably not that much. Because he's been a pretty level-headed guy during his eight seasons on the stock car trail.
   Then again....
   "I have been to New York before....I've walked around. I don't know that I've ever been recognized. So I can't believe the amount of people that  found me and brought their USA Today paper up and had me sign it," McMurray says. "I can't believe how popular that race is, and how -- by winning it -- how many people realize who you are all of a sudden.
    "Getting to go do David Letterman, and Regis and Kelly -- when you walk in and meet them, they will tell you they maybe watched the race, and they know who you are immediately: it makes it all real."
   McMurray is finding that it's not so much the work that goes into winning the race, the laps, the practice, that stuff, but the glow of life the days immediately afterwards: "....learning how special this really is," he says.
    "Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick (all Daytona 500 winners) all sent me text messages and said 'You need to really enjoy the media tour and everything that goes along with this, and make it fun. Take pictures. Take it all in.
     "It's just really hard to explain like how special all this has been to me. I mean winning the race was unbelievable, but everything else that goes along with it -- the talk shows, the media coverage you get for your team and your sponsor -- is unbelievable."
    And it was one heck of a race....though the TV ratings were off, probably because of the 2-1/2 hours it took to repair that pothole. Fox reports the 500 pulled a 7.7 rating, down from 2009's rain-soaked 9.2 rating.
     But that was last weekend, and this is Los Angeles and the California 500.....
   "It will be important to run well this weekend," McMurray says. "But this is a really good track for me, one of my best."
    The other part of the McMurray story is the fact that he's gotten a second chance with team owner Chip Ganassi, the man who gave him that big break back in 2002. And McMurray has made it pay off.
  On top of that, he's got Juan Pablo Montoya as teammate, and Montoya, now in his fourth season on the tour, has come into his own, and had a dominant car at several tracks last year, in what was a turnaround performance for the Ganassi operation.
   Now Ganassi has two bullets in his gun.
   When McMurray got the initial nod in late 2002, it was because Sterling Marlin had just been forced out of the because of a severe neck injury. And Marlin that season was on target toward the championship. It was a solid team that year, and a solid ride that McMurray, then unknown, got.
   And McMurray won the first time out of the box, in one of this sport's most amazing runs.
   "Their NASCAR program was awesome at the time," McMurray recalled.
   Since then, though, the team struggled. Until Montoya's turnaround last summer, after making the move to engines from Richard Childress, the Ganassi operation was not really top-tier.
   Now it clearly is back in form.
   "It certainly had some troubling years," said McMurray, who became discouraged enough to leave three years ago. "But they have a great group of guys at that shop right now. Everyone is very focused on getting this to where it needs to be.
   "With Juan making the chase last year, and now we've started off by winning the Daytona 500, I think this NASCAR program is going to be quite impressive this year."
    So what has it been like these past few days?
   First there was the Daytona win, then the Monday Daytona celebration, then the flight to New York City for a whirlwind media tour, then a flight to San Francisco for more media.....
    "I went to bed about 1 a.m. after the 500...and I woke up at 4:45. Couldn't sleep, we were so excited about winning," McMurray said.
    "Then we put the car in the Daytona 500 Experience, we did all of TV interviews, the radio interviews.
     "Then we got on NASCAR's plane and flew to New York.
      "I had to go buy some clothes; so did (wife) Christy, because we didn't have any clothes with us.
      "We went to a department store in New York and I bought a suit. They tailored it for me at the store.
      "We drove to Letterman's (TV) studio, and I had about three minutes to spare before I walked out on stage.
      "I was worried about being nervous on the show. But I didn't have enough time to even think. They literally got my microphone on me in time to go out and do the show."
     Then more TV, Regis and Kelly, more media work....
     "It is amazing how much attention the Daytona 500 winner gets," McMurray said. "Until you live it, you cannot imagine how much.
      "When I won at Charlotte for Chip initially (2002, at Charlotte), Sterling had already won in that car a couple times earlier in the season. That race team was on it. They were on their way to contend for the championship. It was a great car to step into.
    "It was certainly awkward is to win in your second start. I still remember that day, and I remember being overwhelmed with the amount of media attention.
       "But I never thought it was going to be easy....
     "Then actually the following year we had an opportunity to win four or five races, one of them the Brickyard. But caution flags just killed us. Ended up costing me two or three victories."
     McMurray's up-and-down career? How does he look at those who might have been questioning him for his relative lack of success?
     "Honestly, I don't care," McMurray said. "I don't care how they view me, or what they view me as.
    "You get in a race car as a driver, and you drive your butt off every time you get in it. If you win the race, you win the race. If you don't, you gave it everything you had.
    "I mean, not to be negative, I just don't care what they think."
   And at the moment he doesn't really have to.


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