Give Mcmurray Credit

Hold on. Before any of you out there start screaming, “Jamie who, and why is Chip Ganassi hiring him to drive a Winston Cup car for next season,” take a look at how far Jamie McMurray has come in the last few years.

In 1997, McMurray was the Late Model Stock Car division champion at I-44 Speedway in Lebanon, Mo. Not too bad for a 21-year-old driver trying to make his way up the ladder.

In 1999, he narrowly missed out on winning Rookie of the Year honors in the NASCAR RE/MAX Challenge Series, while running five races in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

No big deal you might say? Wait, it gets better.

In 2000, McMurray drove 16 races in the Craftsman Truck Series with one top-five and four top-10 finishes. That earned him the respect of Busch Series owner Clarence Brewer, who put him in his No. 27 Chevy to run a full schedule for two seasons.

Not impressed yet? Well, nobody was with McMurray’s first season in the Busch Series last year, when he managed only three top-10 finishes.

This season has been a bit different for McMurray, however. While he hasn’t been to victory lane, he has recorded three top-five and 10 top-10 finishes in 2002. With his second-place finish in Friday night’s Funai 250 at Richmond International Raceway, he’s moved into eighth place in the Busch Series standings and has a legitimate shot at moving into the Top 5 by season’s end.

He didn’t get his first Top 10 until the seventh race of the year (at Nashville), but since then he has come on like gangbusters and has become one of the most consistent drivers in the Busch Series.

And he’s done most of this while his future of his Busch Series career has been up in the air. The primary sponsor of his No. 27 Chevy, Williams Travel Centers, announced earlier this year that it would not be returning next season. Having your future employment in doubt is enough to make anyone nervous and makes it hard to focus.

But McMurray has hung in this season, and, if it weren’t for a dominant Dale Earnhardt Jr. Friday night, McMurray might have gotten his first Busch Series victory. His car was that good.

Now that we know who McMurray is, let’s look at it from Ganassi’s side.

Everyone knew that Ganassi was going to field a third car for next season, and it wasn’t much of a secret that ChevronHavoline was going to be the car’s primary sponsor. Ganassi was hoping that he would be able to secure the services of veteran Ricky Rudd to drive a third car for him, and a press conference was scheduled a few weeks back that would have supposedly announced the deal.

But then Rudd and Ganassi “simply couldn’t come to terms,” and the press conference was called off. Rudd subsequently signed a three-year deal to drive the No. 21 Ford of the Wood Brothers.

Open-wheel veterans were available for Ganassi’s third car, and some Winston Cup veterans – some that have made their way over to the Craftsman Truck Series to make a living. Can you say Ted Musgrave? How about Jason Leffler or Robert Pressley?

What about other Busch Series regulars, such as Hank Parker Jr. or Bobby Hamilton Jr.? Perhaps Scott Riggs? All three of those drivers have won races in the Busch Series, while McMurray is still up-and-coming.

So again, why McMurray?

"We've been talking to Jamie and keeping an eye on him for a few weeks," Ganassi said. "With all of these turn of events with ChevronTexaco and everything you guys have been writing about it for the past three or four months, everybody knows now what we're doing. We're proud to introduce Jamie as our driver. The Chevron folks are happy about it. We're thrilled about it and we're more thrilled with last night's performance (second in Busch Grand National race at Richmond).

"You know what I see in this guy? You can talk about talent and records and things like that, but what I see is a lot of heart. That's what I look for. Everybody wants to go fast and everybody has all the little phrases to say and everybody knows how to handle things and everybody knows all the tracks and where they've been. They know about the setups and everything, but you look for heart today. Jamie and I sat and talked about a lot of things outside of racing. We didn't talk much about racing.

“Jamie is a sought after young driver with a great work ethic and the talent to win a lot of races in the future and we will provide him with every resource and opportunity to succeed on our team. Our company is about winning races and championships, and adding value to our sponsor’s investments; and we hope to do both for Havoline.”

Ganassi apparently knows what he’s doing. He’s won multiple CART Fed-Ex Series championships, and he’s built a Winston Cup championship-caliber team in less than two years of ownership. Sterling Marlin currently leads the Winston Cup standings and has had a tremendously solid campaign.

McMurray, who is very well-spoken and a very poised individual, appears ready for the challenge.

“This is the right move for me, and I am pleased to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing,” McMurray said. “ Chip’s use of new technology has been introduced into every aspect of his NASCAR Winston Cup Racing teams. I am especially proud to drive ChevronTexaco’s Havoline car. Havoline has been an excellent sponsor in NASCAR for many years, and I am very humbled to be driving for them.”

Nobody can foresee the future, and Ganassi won't pretend that he's not a bit leery about taking on a young driver like McMurray.

"I guess a lot of young guys have come up and haven't made it," Ganassi said. "Anybody in this paddock that will tell you they know what that's the case is lying to you. Nobody knows for sure. You never know. So many young people these days make a little bit of money and they think they're in the big time.

"It's very hard for somebody in their 20s to swallow all that and deal with all the things they have to deal with. Some of them can handle it and some of them can't. Nobody knows until they're in the middle of it."

And McMurray will be thrust right into the middle of things next season.

Just like a guy name Kurt Busch, McMurray has come a long way in a short time. Ganassi likes the kid, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, OK?

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2002

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