He didn’t make the Chase, but the driver for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing won three races, two of them among NASCAR’s most high-profile and financially rewarding.
Many eyebrows were raised when McMurray began his second tenure with Ganassi by winning the Daytona 500. Then, in July, he won the prestigious Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
Ganassi is the only team owner to win the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Indianapolis 500 in a single season.
McMurray’s third and final victory came in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte – another high-profile race, by the way.
That’s darn good for a guy who, at the end of 2009, wasn’t sure if he would even have a ride for the coming season.
McMurray suspected that his four-year tenure with Roush Fenway Racing was coming to an end. NASCAR had ruled that no organization could field more than four teams and since Roush had five, one had to go. That was, ultimately, McMurray’s.
Ironically, McMurray latched on with the team that gave him his start in Cup competition.
In 2002 Sterling Marlin was Ganassi’s driver. He was atop the point standings when, late in the season with six races remaining, he suffered what became a career-ending neck injury at Kansas.
Marlin was replaced by McMurray, who amazingly won in only his second start for the team at Charlotte in October.
That was to be his only high moment.
During the next three years with Ganassi, McMurray didn’t win a race and finished no higher than 11th in points.
Felix Sabates, the outspoken co-owner at Ganassi, said there was a reason for that.
“At the time Jamie drove for us we weren’t a very good team,” he said. “I had owned a team for years and when Chip came aboard he had to clean up the mess I’d left him. It had all gone to hell.
“We had gone through a lot of turmoil and turnover. Yet I thought were still better that we were showing.”
Sabates added that many changes were made after Ganassi essentially took over.
“We switched from Chevrolet to Dodge and it took us three years just to learn how to spell Dodge,” Sabates said. “We shut down our engine shop and turned to Ernie Elliott to build our engines.
“For the first couple of years Chip did everything he could to try to change things – and eventually he did.”
As Ganassi worked to alter the team’s fortunes McMurray left after the 2005 season to join Roush.
“I told Jamie that if Roush was going to pay him the kind of bucks I thought he would, then Jamie should take the money,” Sabates said. “We couldn’t pay him that money. And I thought he could do better with Roush than us.”
From 2006-2009 McMurray did win twice with Roush but never finished higher than16th in points. He wasn’t regarded as one of the five-car team’s high-profile drivers.
When the Roush down-sizing happened at the end of 2009, McMurray was cut loose.
McMurray felt all along he was going to be the odd man out and said so during a dinner with Sabates.
“Actually, Jamie and I met because he was looking for a house,” Sabates said. “But he did tell me that he thought he was going to be let go at Roush but didn’t know for sure because he hadn’t been told.”
McMurray indicated he would like to re-join Ganassi if possible. Sabates relayed the message to Ganassi, who said he liked the idea but couldn’t make a move until McMurray’s departure from Roush was official.
“After we knew Jamie was gone I called Chip a couple of times and then I guess Jamie’s agent called Chip,” Sabates said. “And that’s how we got together.”
McMurray did not return to the same team he had left after 2005. By 2009 Ganassi had merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc. to form Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.
“Chip had brought in a bunch of engineers who understood a Cup car rather than an Indy car,” Sabates said. “And the biggest thing we did was to get involved with Earnhardt-Childress Racing to build engines.
“It’s been the whole package. It’s been a complete team turnaround.”
McMurray has also experienced something of a turnaround. He has said that leaving Ganassi was good for him. He’s matured greatly and has learned some valuable lessons.
He provided plenty of evidence of both in 2010 – with considerable help from Earnhardt Ganassi.
Sabates has also learned a few lessons, like when to get out.
“When I’m 70 I’m not going to be doing this any longer,” he said. “I couldn’t even lean over to kiss the bricks when we won at Indianapolis.
“In the near future I’m going to go to Daytona and sit in the suite with Betty Jane France and that’s about it.”
Also, in the near future, things could get even better for McMurray – and no one will think that improbable.