INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jamie McMurray’s a big believer in fate, that things work out in the end if you just keep at it.
It’s an ethos that’s buoyed the NASCAR driver throughout his often bumpy career, one that’s been a mixed bag at best, disappointing at worst.
McMurray remained upbeat last summer when he knew he was on his way out at Roush-Fenway Racing, optimistic he’d eventually find a new home. Opportunity came in a surprising place: driving for Chip Ganassi, the owner he’d left five years earlier for the deeper pockets at RFR.
It was a detour McMurray felt he needed to take. He came back to Ganassi — who had merged operations with Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the interim — a more mature, more appreciative driver.
He also came back to a better team, one that’s found a way to thrive on NASCAR’s biggest stages.
McMurray held off Kevin Harvick to win Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and become only the third driver to triumph at both Indy and the Daytona 500 in the same season.
Heady territory for a driver — and a team — hardly considered among the sport’s elite eight months ago.
“Everybody that has stuck behind me, when things weren’t as great as they could have been. It’s unreal right now. Winning the 500 … both of them, it’s just awesome.”
McMurray joins Dale Jarrett (1996) and Jimmie Johnson (2006) as the only drivers to pull off the Daytona-Indy double while Ganassi has another bauble to add to his growing collection. Ganassi is the only owner to win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard in the same season.
For most of the race it appeared Ganassi was a lock for Victory Lane not with McMurray but Juan Pablo Montoya. The Colombian dominated at the 2.5-mile oval for the second straight year, leading a race-high 86 laps before an ill-fated gamble to take four tires instead of two during a late caution left the 2000 Indy 500 champion snakebit yet again.
The move dropped Montoya from first to seventh. His No. 42 car struggled on the restart and five laps later he found himself smacking the wall in Turn 4 before getting drilled by Dale Earnhardt Jr. He finished 32nd.
Crew chief Brian Pattie took responsibility for the miscue, and Ganassi didn’t exactly disagree.
“What do I say to Juan and Brian? They should have taken two,” Ganassi said.
It’s a gamble that paid off handsomely for McMurray, who had little trouble shaking free of Kevin Harvick on the restart following Montoya’s crash and picked up his fifth career victory.
Though McMurray remains on the outside of NASCAR’s Chase picture, he’s not exactly worried about it. A year ago he was a lame-duck driver on an underachieving team. Those days seem long ago.
“The guy that (has) got to feel like an idiot tonight has to be Jack Roush,” said co-owner Felix Sabates. “He’s the one that let (McMurray) go.”
McMurray puts it a little more demurely. He won at Daytona by holding off a hard-charging Earnhardt in a race that is sometimes akin to winning the lottery.
He was better at Indy, running consistently in the top 5 all day at one of the most difficult tracks on the circuit. But he admitted winning wasn’t in his mind while spending most of the day trying to keep the rear bumper of Montoya’s Chevrolet in sight.
“I really believed that this was Juan’s weekend,” he said.
Until all of a sudden, it wasn’t.
While a member of Montoya’s crew carried his helmet and drenched firesuit out of Montoya’s motorhome, McMurray was putting Ganassi in Victory Lane at the Brickyard for the second time in eight weeks.
In May, Ganassi sipped the milk after Target Chip Ganassi star Dario Franchitti won the Indy 500. This time he was kissing the bricks.
The taste was just as sweet — maybe even sweeter considering how far Ganassi’s NASCAR program has come in the last few years.
“Is it surreal? Yes,” Ganassi said. “From where we were a while back, people had written Jamie off. People had written us off.”
Harvick finished second for Richard Childress Racing, Greg Biffle was third in a Ford, followed by RCR teammate Clint Bowyer and two-time Brickyard winner Tony Stewart.
Jeff Burton, the third RCR entry, was sixth. Carl Edwards in a Ford was seventh and was followed by Kyle Busch in the highest-finishing Toyota, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Joey Logano and Kurt Busch, who in 10th was the highest-finishing Dodge.
Johnson’s attempt to win at the Brickyard for the fourth time in five years ended with a thud. He struggled all day at a track he has mastered so easily in the past and finished 22nd.
“We had real high expectations for the day,” Johnson said. “We made some attempts during caution flags and made some big changes on pit road but nothing really woke up the car.”
The winner at Indy has gone on to win the season championship in eight of the last 12 years. Don’t expect McMurray to make it 9 of 13. Even with the victory he’s just 16th in points heading into next week’s race at Pocono, and with just six races remaining before the 12-driver Chase cutoff, there is plenty of work to be done.
To be honest, McMurray isn’t really worried about it. Considering where he was 12 months ago, having the trophies from the two biggest races in the sport on his mantle will do for now.
“Getting to win the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 means more to me this year than making the Chase,” he said. “This year or in 10 years, the guy that won (those races), everybody will talk about. The guy that finished third in points, nobody cares.”