McMurray's victory adds fuel to driver vs. car debate

Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Driver or car?

Jamie McMurray's victory in Sunday's UAW-GM 500 provides a new ration of meat for one of NASCAR's timeless arguments.

Do drivers win because they have superior equipment, or is equipment superior because a driver gets the most out of it? That's the kind of unanswerable question that keeps race fans arguing season after season.

The No. 40 Dodge McMurray drove at Lowe's Motor Speedway was one in which Sterling Marlin won two races this year. Marlin, out with a broken vertebra in his neck, helped set the car up for McMurray's second start and Marlin's top-flight crew made good pit stops and the needed car adjustments Sunday.

Marlin led the Winston Cup standings from February until September, but it had been since the season's fifth race in Darlington, S.C., that the No. 40 team had been to Victory Lane. If the car was so great and the team was so rock solid, how did McMurray win Sunday if Marlin hadn't won since March?

McMurray didn't try to hog the credit.

"You hear about chemistry and working well together," he said. "We made the right decisions tonight. They made really good calls in the pits and our race car got better through the entire night. It got better every pit stop."

McMurray got better, too. He brought a box load of dread into the week with him because the track was one he'd never quite figured out in two years of Grand National competition. But as he drove his Grand National and Cup cars during the rain-plagued weekend, that changed.

"I learned the race track in my Grand National car," McMurray said. "After I got out of the Cup car Thursday, the Grand National car seemed like it was going so much slower, I could see things on the track I'd never seen before.

"You hear about the bumps in turns 3 and 4. Honestly, I never saw them until I got in the Grand National car on Saturday. It just seemed like I could see the lines on the race track, and it picked up dramatically." McMurray hadn't won in nearly two full Grand National seasons. He didn't win in a year-plus in the Truck series, either. So it was a surprise when team owner Chip Ganassi hired him to drive his third team next season.

Ganassi had discussed that new ride to at least two current Cup drivers, John Andretti and Dave Blaney. Facing a deadline, Ganassi asked NASCAR vice president Jim Hunter for leads on the sport's young but unproven talent. McMurray's name was one Hunter suggested.

On Sept. 6, a Friday, McMurray scored a Grand National-series best finish of second at Richmond, Va., behind Dale Earnhardt Jr. The next day, a deal with Ganassi was announced.

"He told me the reason I got the job was because I had a good-looking girlfriend," McMurray joked Sunday. His significant other is Cielo Garcia, who gave up her Miss Winston job when McMurray took over for Marlin since the Victory Lane model isn't allowed to date a Cup driver.

Ganassi said he hired McMurray because he felt the young driver had heart. With Marlin hurt, Ganassi reasoned that if he had the faith to hire McMurray for 2003, then he should have enough to put him in the No. 40 now.

McMurray, meanwhile, had confidence. Despite expectations, he knew his job was to make the car do what it was capable of doing. And as Sunday's race moved from afternoon to evening, he felt better about his chances.

"I had a cat that was effortless to drive," he said. "I'm worn out after a Grand National race, but this car was comfortable. I was joking around on the radio with 100 laps to go, trying to be funny, because I was in that good of a mood.

"I was leading a Cup race. I wasn't tired. My back didn't hurt. It wasn't hot. It's amazing when you're in front of the field how much cooler the car is. When you're a lap down, it's the hottest thing in the whole world."

That changed. With 50 laps left, he worried about not messing up his final stop. Later, he focused on holding off Bobby Labonte and a fast-closing Tony Stewart.

"Everybody just said, 'Keep patient,'" McMurray said. "It's hard to be patient when you've never won a race in the Truck or Grand National series and you're leading a Cup race. I was going crazy. I just had so many things going through my head."

But he kept it together and went to Victory Lane.

So did the car, and so did the team.

"It was our turn to win," McMurray said. "It was our night."

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