It was an emotional victory for Jamie McMurray, one that moved him so deeply that he cried – twice.
McMurray, a winner in the Daytona 500 for the first time, broke up in victory lane as he started talking about his wife, Christy, and his father, Jim.
More than an hour after the win, he broke down again in the winner’s interview in the media center.
“I can’t explain it. It’s a dream. I mean it really is,” McMurray said.
“My dad, it’s who I grew up racing with. He’s literally my best friend, probably. He’s who I hang out with. People have told me forever that you need to spend as much time with your parents while they’re around. One day they won’t be, and you’ll wish you had. I’m fortunate that my dad is cool.”
Ironically, McMurray’s father, who started Jamie in go-cart racing, left the track before the end of the race. He offered his son congratulations via cell phone.
The victory was a splendid kickoff for McMurray’s second go-round with team owner Chip Ganassi. He raced with Ganassi from 2002 to 2005 before joining Jack Roush’s team in 2006. The 500 marked his return to what is now Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
“Certainly, coming back here now it’s way different,” McMurray said. “I’m at a different point in my life. I’m married. Your nightlife is a lot different. Everything’s different.
“I go to bed at 8:30 at night. But I like to get up early. Everybody makes fun of me for that, but I think that’s what normal people do.
“It’s great to be back here and be a part of this. I’ve spent the last 11 days here in Daytona. Some of the best stuff is to be able to call Chip or Felix (Felix Sabates, a minority team owner). Chip is my car owner, but he’s also my friend. That’s something I haven’t had in the last four years, and that’s something that’s very important to me.”
The victory, McMurray’s fourth in Sprint Cup, came in dramatic fashion. He led only two laps – the final two – and roared to the front in a tangle of frantic traffic to end the second of two “green-white-checkered” segments.
And he won with the ominous sight of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet filling his rear-view mirror. Earnhardt Jr. made a remarkable and risky charge through the field to challenge McMurray in the final moments.
“I saw the No. 88 behind me and I thought, ‘Oh, no,’ ” McMurry said. “He had a good car, and Earnhardt at Daytona is just – I mean, they win all the time, it seems like. So you never know what to expect.”
With the victory, Ganassi completed bookends on his team ownership career, placing the 500 win beside victories in the Indianapolis 500. He fields a NASCAR team in partnership with Teresa Earnhardt, widow of Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in the 500 in 2001. She was not at the race Sunday.
McMurray said Greg Biffle, his former Roush Fenway Racing teammate (and Sunday’s No. 3 finisher), gave him a boost on the race’s final restart.
“I spun the tires on the restart, and he gave me an unbelievable push down the backstretch,” McMurray said. “I somewhat know how Greg races. Greg is a really smart driver. If I would have been in his position and he’d have been leading, I would have been right behind. I would have done the same thing. I would have pushed him as far as I could. … Certainly, having a good friend behind you is important.”
And he said he’d buy dinner for Biffle.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.