(Photo: Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Be honest. How many of you – other than the most die-hard of his fans – would have picked Jamie McMurray to win Sunday's 52nd running of the Daytona 500?
But at the same time, I'm not surprised one bit.
Sunday's win was his third restrictor plate victory, adding to triumphs at Daytona in summer 2007 and last fall at Talladega.
More importantly, after nearly eight seasons on the Sprint Cup circuit, Jamie Mac finally lived up to all the expectations that have been made for him throughout his career – yet for one reason or other has never been able to quite reach.
He's now what many people thought he could be: a champion. Sure, it's a Daytona 500 champion, not a Sprint Cup champion, but he's a champion nonetheless.
And, if he can proudly claim one championship now, who is to say he can't go on to win the other, even more important championship when the season ends 35 races from now?
There's an old adage that nice guys are the most deserving winners, and that couldn't be more true in McMurray's case. Ever since he left Joplin, Mo., to find his fame, fortune and future in NASCAR, he's always been one of the nicest, friendliest and most down-to-earth drivers to be around.
Back when he was running the ASA Midwest circuit in the mid-to-late 1990s, McMurray drove a season for a team sponsored by the suburban Chicago salon where I get my hair cut. Every time I see the owner, Lisa Thomas, she always asks how Jamie's doing.
One conversation we had a few years ago, Lisa wished Jamie would have even greater success than he had up to that point.
"He deserves it. He's the nicest guy," she said.
And she's right, not to mention probably the 10,000th person in this world that has made a similar comment about McMurray.
If there was a knock about his being so nice, it's that some critics felt McMurray was a bit too nice, a bit too timid and was more of a fall guy than the chosen one. But that's McMurray's nature, and he should not be judged negatively if he's not boisterous or cantankerous like some of his racing peers.
Look at it from another perspective: how often have we seen drivers in NASCAR leave one team, only to return to that same team a few years later, and welcomed almost like the prodigal son.
It rarely happens -- but indeed, that's exactly what happened to McMurray. When he left Chip Ganassi Racing following the 2005 season, he felt the opportunity he had to replace Kurt Busch at Jack Roush Racing was too good to pass up.
Sadly, McMurray never realized the expectations and potential in the Roush camp because his teammates – including Mark Martin at the time, as well as Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and David Ragan – usually got first dibs on equipment, personnel and the like.
That's not a knock at McMurray. That's just how things play out usually when you're with a large multi-car team.
And then, when Roush had to cut a driver and team after the 2009 season to conform to NASCAR's mandate that any one owner could no longer have more than four teams under his/her organizational umbrella, McMurray unfortunately was the odd man out.
But when Martin Truex Jr. decided that his future was best served elsewhere than Earnhardt Ganassi Racing (formerly Dale Earnhardt Inc.), McMurray was arguably one of the best available free agents to fill Truex's shoes there. Ironically enough, McMurray won Sunday's race with Truex's old crew chief, Kevin "Bono" Mannion. You have to wonder if Truex isn't maybe kicking himself slightly for having left EGR after last season.
And boy, is majority team owner Chip Ganassi ever thanking his lucky stars he welcomed Jamie back, for he was able to give the Chipster something no other Cup driver has: a Daytona 500 win to go along with wins in the Rolex 24 and, most importantly, several in the Indianapolis 500.
And it was all because McMurray did not burn any bridges when he left what used to be known as Chip Ganassi Racing.
"I've said before, you know, when it's time to hire a driver, you always take the best guy that's available," Ganassi said. "And that's a mantra that our team has lived by for a long time. We obviously had a history with Jamie.
"I might point out ... this was his second first win with us (McMurray won in place of the injured Sterling Marlin in 2002 at Charlotte). For those of you that were around back in the day in Charlotte there, that was a pretty emotional day as well for us."
McMurray learned a valuable lesson upon his return to the Ganassi fold after last season: while moving to Roush for 2006 may have looked like a better opportunity at the time, it proved the old saying right that the grass isn't always greener on the other side of the hill.
"I'm not quitting again, just so you guys know, I'm staying," McMurray said to Ganassi and minority team owner Felix Sabates with a laugh.
When McMurray climbed out of his race car following a couple of celebratory burnouts, he grabbed the checkered flag from the track flag man, walked back to his car, dropped to his knees and kissed the white Daytona 500 logo that was painted on the infield grass before he made his way to victory lane, overwhelmed with emotion.
"It's unreal, unbelievable really," McMurray said between his tears of joy. "I can't explain it. It's a dream. It really is. To be where I was last year and have Johnny Morris (CEO of primary sponsor Bass Pro Shops) and Chip and Felix take a chance on me and let me come back, it means a lot to me. What a way to pay them back."
There's another reason why McMurray's win Sunday wasn't exactly a complete surprise. He continued a trend that has now reached four years of drivers who not only made a late-race kick – he led just the final two laps of the event, the fewest ever by a race winner in Daytona 500 history – but also were not exactly household names when it came to picking favorites to win the 500 going into it.
I mean, how many people picked Kevin Harvick to win the 2007 Daytona 500, Ryan Newman in 2008 and Matt Kenseth last year? I'd say it's safe to guess not all that many, with most people going for guys like Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and the like.
Ergo, how many people picked McMurray to win in 2010? Oh yeah, and might I mention he was a minimum 30-1 pre-race pick by Vegas bookies.
"You know, you got to be lucky, though, to win these," McMurray said afterward. "I've been able to put myself in a really good position the last two plate tracks. So, I mean, I don't think it's an upset. I think, you know, it's really tough for, you know, a new driver and crew chief and team to all come together and to be able to win in their first race. That's huge."
When it came time to make my picks to win Sunday's race, I chose Stewart, but I also added a caveat that Juan Pablo Montoya was my dark horse if Stewart fell short.
Well, Stewart did fall short, and maybe I had the wrong driver as my dark horse, but I nailed the right organization for which I can take some consolation.
And consider Sunday's irony. McMurray wins the race for EGR/the former DEI by defeating the son of the company's late founder, Dale Earnhardt by a mere .110 of a second. Junior left DEI after 2007 to race for Hendrick Motorsports.
"I looked in my mirror and saw the 88 (Earnhardt)," McMurray said. "I'll be honest, I was like, 'Crap, this guy has won a lot of races here. His family has an incredible history here.'"
But McMurray was not to be denied.
"You know, I believe everything happens for a reason," he said. "I just was like, I hope this isn't his (Earnhardt's) turn to win the Daytona 500, I hope this is mine."
Give credit where it's due, though: for Junior to come back from 10th to 2nd in less than one lap is a spectacular rally. And, frankly, if he would have had maybe another backstretch to go, Junior may very well have overtaken McMurray for the checkered flag – one that required an additional eight laps of "overtime" due to two caution periods that helped set up McMurray's triumph.
Given how terrible he was in 2009, finishing a career-worst 25th in the final standings, you would have thought Earnhardt would have been jumping for joy after crossing the finish line Sunday.
Instead, he needlessly sulked.
"I'm disappointed to come back that far and finish so close," Earnhardt said dejectedly. "I know we ran second and probably shouldn’t have. It's just frustrating to come that close and not do it."
Finally, he begrudgingly added, "But, we had a good run."
Sunday, McMurray not only lived up to years of expectations and potential, he couldn't have picked a better car – or car number – to win the biggest race of his life.
"I told the guys in the team meeting today, this one you will never forget if we have the opportunity to win this," Mannion said. "The rest of your life, you will never forget a win at Daytona, and especially the Daytona 500."
Many people have already started calling Sunday's race one of the best in many a year in Daytona 500 annals, and I'd concur with that. Not only was the outcome exciting, it couldn't have been much more fitting, for the man who drives car No. 1 definitely wound up being the No. 1 driver, as well.
And who says nice guys don't finish first? Sunday a genuinely nice guy did just that.