Road & Track (USA)

‘Okay, Little Buddy, the Next One Back Is the Winner’


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Heroes are made when ordinary people are thrust into extraordin­ary situations. Then— through courage, talent, and some luck—they cement their place in history. That’s the story of Jamie Mcmurray’s drive at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October 2002.

“I was this guy from Missouri who grew up in a normal family,” he recalls. Just two years earlier, he was racing a pickup for an underfunde­d team. At Charlotte, Mcmurray shocked the NASCAR world by winning in just his second Cup race.

It all started at age eight when he first climbed into a go-kart. Mcmurray didn’t come from a racing family, making his rise all the more unlikely. He climbed the ranks to the Craftsman Truck Series, then to NASCAR’S second tier, which at that time was the Busch Series. Then came that phone call.

At the Protection One 400 in Kansas on September 29, 2002, Sterling Marlin crashed brutally, and x-rays revealed a cracked vertebra in his neck. Team owner Chip Ganassi called on Mcmurray to fill in for Marlin. Mcmurray had never won in the truck or Busch series. He finished 26th in his first Cup race at Talladega. Then the whole circus moved on to Charlotte, where NASCAR fans treat the sport as a religion.

“Charlotte was probably my least favorite track,” Mcmurray recalls. In practice, his lap times were close to dead last. He came into the pit, and team manager Tony Glover said, “You weren’t kidding—this is not a good track for you.”

Throughout practice and qualifying, however, Mcmurray got himself dialed in. Rain delayed the start, but when the green flag waved, Mcmurray and his team used brilliant pit strategy and crackling performanc­e to cycle into the lead. “As drivers, you always hear about clean air and how much faster you can run when you’re out in front,” he says. “When I got out front, I was, like, wow! The car was really fast. I’d never experience­d that before.”

Mcmurray led 96 of the last 100 laps in the No. 40 Coors Light car. “I remember everything about the last lap,” he says. Bobby Labonte was tucked close behind in second, so one little mistake could have cost Mcmurray the race. Team manager Glover said calmly over the radio, “Okay, little buddy, the next one back is the winner.” The checkered flag waved, and the TV announcer yelled, “Unbelievab­le!” The scene in Charlotte’s victory lane was insane. Mcmurray’s father had flown in for the race and got to see it all.

“When I got to victory lane,” Mcmurray says, “I put myself in Sterling’s shoes. I knew he was at home with a broken neck. Someone gave me a cellphone, and Sterling was on the phone. He couldn’t have been nicer. He said all the things you would want him to say.”

Mcmurray raced his first full year in Cup the following season, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Now Mcmurray is a TV analyst with Fox. His achievemen­t of winning in only his second Cup race is a record that still stands.

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