Jamie McMurray burst onto the Cup racing scene in the fall of 2002 like a man aflame.
He was thrust into the spotlight when Sterling Marlin, then driving for Chip Ganassi, suffered a serious neck injury in a crash and was forced to the sidelines. McMurray, then 26 years old, stepped in as a substitute.
He finished 26th in his first Cup start – at Talladega, revealing nothing of what was to come.
In start No. 2 McMurray went bonkers, providing one of the highlights of the 2002 season. He led 96 laps in the fall race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and held on to win, becoming one of very few drivers in the history of NASCAR to score a win in their second series start.
But then McMurray sort of disappeared. He didn’t threaten to return to victory lane the rest of the 2002 season, and he drove through the next three seasons with Ganassi without reaching victory lane again.
McMurray moved on to Jack Roush’s team, where single wins came in 2007 and ’09, but he wasn’t able to sustain success there, and he and Roush went separate ways. McMurray was looking for a ride when Ganassi called, offering a return spot.
Neither he nor Ganassi could have guessed what was to come – and quickly.
McMurray realized his potential in 2010, and he realized it in a big way.
It began in spectacular fashion in the opening race at Daytona as McMurray scored the win of his life, outracing several challengers over the closing laps to claim the Daytona 500.
That victory left McMurray in tears in victory lane. No one knew it then, of course, but he would go on to match his career total of three Cup wins in the 2010 season.
The next victory also came in sensational fashion as McMurray won the Brickyard 400, giving him wins in the two most important NASCAR events of the season.
Additionally, his triumph at Indy made Ganassi, a veteran of the open-wheel wars, a winner of the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500, quite a trifecta.
McMurray polished off his season with a win in the fall race at Charlotte, revisiting the spot where he had shocked the NASCAR world eight years before.
Problems with DNFs left McMurray 14th in Cup points and denied him a spot in the Chase, but many other drivers would have traded places with him after big-event wins at Daytona, Indianapolis and Charlotte.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.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.