From SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, February 22, 2010
HE WAS CLOSING FAST. THE DRIVER, THE CREW CHIEF AND THE co-owner all understood this reality the moment the crowd of nearly 180,000 rose to its feet on Sunday evening at Daytona International Speedway and unleashed a roar so loud that it could signal only one thing: Junior was coming.
As leader Jamie McMurray—the same Jamie McMurray who had been released by Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last season after four disappointing years and picked up by the fledgling Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team for 2010—charged into Turn 3 with less than a mile to go to the checkered flag, he looked in his mirror and had one thought: Crap. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had just weaved through a crowd of NASCAR's best drivers at 185 mph and slingshotted from sixth to second place in a matter of seconds. Suddenly this Great American Race, which had been low on highlights and long on delays (red-flagged twice for a total of nearly 2½ hours because of a recurring pothole just off Turn 2) had become riveting theater.
McMurray, like everyone else around the Speedway, knew that Earnhardt, for all his recent struggles, remains a master at Daytona, as good as anyone at working the draft on the high banks. With Junior nearing his back bumper, McMurray mashed the gas. His crew chief, Kevin Manion, sitting atop the number 1 pit box, closed his eyes, unable to watch the final seconds. One of McMurray's co-owners, Felix Sabates, yelled, "Oh, no! Not Earnhardt!" as the two drivers barreled into the final turn.
But when McMurray hit the throttle again, he experienced something that he rarely had when he had driven for Sabates and Chip Ganassi in his first stint with the co-owners, from 2003 to '05: an abundance of power under the hood. He beat Earnhardt to the finish line by .119 of a second to win just the fourth race of his eight-year Cup career, capping one of the most bizarre 500s in recent memory. "Chip and Felix took a chance on me when not many people would," said McMurray, 33, shortly after he climbed out of his Chevrolet in Victory Lane. Wiping back tears he added, "This is the best way for me to pay them back."