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For Jamie McMurray, one helluva year!


Jamie McMurray at the line Saturday night (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



   Jamie McMurray's season has been simply incredible. One helluva year.
   Daytona, Talladega, Darlington, Charlotte, Indianapolis, now Charlotte again: three wins, three seconds, in six of this sport's biggest events.
   Yes, he's not in the championship playoffs. Too many off-weeks, in an up-and-down season.
   But in the big games – and Talladega, where he won last fall and finished second in the spring, looms again – McMurray, in this his season back with Chip Ganassi, has been a home run hitter.

   And this track, this race, is where it all began for McMurray, back in 2002: Who can forget this then little-known racer getting an unexpected late-season start as sub for injured Sterling Marlin in Ganassi's cars. McMurray won his first time out, amazing everyone.
   But his career has been one filled with more downs than ups, and something of increasing moodiness as the downs lingered on....until this season.
   One year ago here McMurray had no job lined up for 2010.
   Now he's on top of the world, boasting his best season ever in NASCAR.
   And it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

    Charlotte Motor Speedway's corners were slippery, as Jeff Burton here shows (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   McMurray has been one of the sport's 'good guys' right from the start. And he wears his heart on his sleeve, as he showed in that emotional response to winning the Daytona 500...and then winning Indianapolis' Brickyard 400 to boot.
   Again here Saturday night McMurray went to great pains to explain the ups and downs and emotions that have raged within him all season.
   If only he were in the chase....
   "It has been an unbelievable year," McMurray said after beating Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson to win Saturday night's 500.
    "I also want to take the time to explain something: as the laps were winding down, I was thinking about Daytona and crying in victory lane.  I don't think I ever really got to explain that, and why I cried, and what was going on there. 
    "But I had a tough year last year...and I found out the power of prayer and what that can do for you. 
     "When you get to victory lane, and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer. 
    "I talked to Chip earlier today, and we were discussing sponsorship and where this organization was a year ago, and how far we've come.  To be in victory lane four times this year, and to have both cars (teammate Juan Pablo Montoya) run as well as they do, and to have the support we do from Target and all these sponsors now, it's incredible. And I just feel very blessed to be a part of it."


    And Kurt Busch was yet another title contender who wound up sideways (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For Johnson, it was an eventful night, in several aspects.
   First, he spun out, while trying to pass Bobby Labonte on the outside. The track was quite slippery early and Johnson wasn't the only star bobbling. Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton both did too.
   Johnson, though, somehow managed to recover.
   In fact he was battling for the win at the end. Johnson's duel with Busch was brilliant, the two men bobbing and weaving, and Johnson taking a lot of chances.
   Busch said he was surprised he could hold off Johnson. But Busch was more upset that he let McMurray get away.
   "The car was phenomenal all night, one of our best cars we've ever had," Busch said. "And being able to drive through people, get up back towards the front, at a difficult track to pass at, this was a great run, a surprising run....
    "It was a great feeling...all up until about 20 to go, when we got a caution...and then got beat on the (restart), and then in the ensuing laps to the end. 
    "Just very, very frustrating."
   Busch has a reputation as one of the sport's best at restarts.
   "That was good racing," Johnson said. "I have to give Kyle a lot of credit – he ran his line, didn't start mirror-driving or blocking me....
   "He ran as hard as he could in his lane...and I was searching for a new lane to try to get by him."
   And, equally surprising, title rivals Jeff Gordon, Burton, Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart all stumbled, taking themselves essentially out of the chase.
   And heading to Martinsville Speedway this weekend for Round Six of the chase the Sprint Cup title chase appears down to Jimmie Johnson being chased by Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick. And so far Johnson, while he hasn't really outclassed the two, has been the best of the threesome, and Hamlin and Harvick have yet to mount a decent charge of their own. How much longer Hamlin and Harvick can afford to play defense is unclear.
   "It was really a wash this weekend," Johnson was saying, after adding a few points to his lead over Hamlin and Harvick and a bunch of points to his lead over the rest of the challengers. "We got one more race behind us; that's great.
   "We'll just keep plugging and see what happens after Talladega. I really feel like after Talladega we'll see if we are in position to protect or play catch-up."


     Things get pretty frantic on pit road, and there were more than a few close calls in Saturday night's 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Indeed, Talladega, in two weeks, is a wild card.
   "Until we get through Talladega I think everyone is still in it," McMurray says.
   Because Talladega could make for a 140-point swing if something goes awry.
   Harvick himself was just glad to get through Saturday's 500, with an eighth, rather hard-fought at that.
   "I'm really happy," Harvick, the regular season runaway, said. "Everybody knows this has been our big struggle. So our goal was to come in here and get a single-digit finish...and we did that.
   "The guys fought all night...I screamed and complained...the pit crew had a bad stop the first one but then they were great the rest of the night.
   "Hopefully this is something we can build on.
   "For us it was damage control – I know we probably had a lot better race car than eighth. But for me this is just a struggle.  I struggle to get the feel I want. To come out of here with an eighth feels like a victory."
   Still, he fell further behind Johnson, trailing now by 77 points with five races to go.
   Hamlin too was playing defense, again.
   "But this was better here than I was last year," Hamlin said. "And now we're going to a great track for us, Martinsville.
   "And then Talladega's going to be -- who knows. 
     "In this race last year I blew up, and last time (May) I wrecked; so I'm ahead of pace.
      "I'm happy with our day, a top-five.  You look at our average finish over these last few weeks, and we've been up-and-down, and some people think mediocre. But that's been good enough to win the championship for probably two or three or four of the last four years."
    So Hamlin appears happy to be hanging on to Johnson's coattails.  
    "I'm not disappointed at all," Hamlin insisted. "We started in the back (23rd), we came back from the (Ryan) Newman spin in the front at the beginning of the race. 
    "Frankly, I feel like he (Johnson) is in our sights.  He's eight-positions-in-one-race in front of us, and that can be overcome pretty easily."


     Jimmie Johnson (here at the wheel, listening to Max Pappis) is sitting pretty in the title chase, with only two close rivals left (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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