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McMurray stuns NASCAR

Filling in for Sterling Marlin, 26-year-old rookie wins in his second Winston Cup start.

©Associated Press
October 14, 2002

CONCORD, N.C. -- Jamie McMurray said he was shocked when team owner Chip Ganassi told him he would replace injured Sterling Marlin for the last seven races of the season.

Sunday, the 26-year-old driver stunned everyone else by winning the UAW-GM 500 in only his second Winston Cup start.

McMurray, scheduled to move up from the Busch series next year, was pressed into service early by Ganassi and team co-owner Felix Sabates when Marlin, who led the points much of the season, was sidelined by a fractured vertebra two weeks ago in Kansas City.

The youngster, who hasn't finished better than second in a Busch race in nearly two full seasons, drove to a 26th-place finish in his Cup debut Oct. 6 at Talladega, Ala. That showing would have been considerably better if the team had not run his Dodge out of gas.

But he wasn't thinking about that on Sunday.

"They took a chance on me," McMurray said. "I hadn't won in trucks or Busch. They put me in first-class equipment and I made the most of it tonight."

McMurray gave up the lead when he made his final pit stop on Lap 285. He went back on top after the other leaders made their green-flag stops.

"With 100 laps to go, I didn't know if we were going to win," McMurray said. "I struggled getting on pit road. I really lost a lot of time there. I didn't want to make a mistake ... and lose a lap or something, so I gave up a little bit there."

There were no mistakes by the crew or the driver Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway.

After taking the lead for the final time on Lap 304 of the 334-lap event, McMurray appeared on the way to an easy win. A slight bobble four laps from the end allowed 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte to move his Pontiac nearly up to McMurray's rear bumper.

The inexperienced McMurray was up to the job, though, holding off Labonte and actually pulling away on the final lap to win by 0.35 seconds -- about 5 car lengths.

"I don't believe it," McMurray said in a frantic victory circle. "This was a really hard situation with Sterling being hurt, but what an opportunity."

Series leader Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate, finished third and padded his points lead.

After taking the checkered flag, McMurray did a burnout in which his car nearly disappeared in a billowing white cloud of smoke. In victory circle, McMurray talked to Marlin and a national TV audience by cell phone.

Marlin joked, "That's way too soon," then added, "I knew Jamie was going to be a good driver for us."

McMurray led four times for a race-high total of 96 laps as he broke Kevin Harvick's year-old record as the quickest winner in NASCAR's modern era. Harvick won in his third race after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in the second race of 2001.

The starting lineup was determined by car owner points after qualifying was rained out. That put McMurray in fifth place.

Jeff Gordon, struggling to remain in the points chase, finished fourth, followed by Rusty Wallace, rookie Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and rookie Ryan Newman. All but Burton are part of the closest points race in NASCAR history.

Johnson, who led for one week before Stewart took over the top spot, moved to second, 97 points behind.

Mark Martin, who came into the race second, trailing Stewart by 72 points, struggled late in the race with an engine problem and wound up a lap down in 16th. He fell to third, 122 points back.

The big wreck the drivers avoided at dangerous Talladega came here on Lap 230. Todd Bodine, Ward Burton and Jeff Green, back in the pack, were racing three-wide onto the frontstretch. Bodine got his left-side tires in the soaked grass, slid up the banking into Burton, who in turn hit Green. Before it was over, cars and debris were strewn across the grass and the end of pit road.

"It was my fault, obviously," Bodine said. "Ward and Jeff slowed up; I don't know why. I was either going to run into Ward or get underneath him. I didn't want to do it."

That was the last of five cautions in the race, the others brought out by oil on the track or single-car crashes.

Rain delayed the start of the race by three hours.

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