McMurray Shines, Junior Climbs and Montoya Finds His Way to Top 10 Finish
Miami resident Montoya led two laps Sunday, including Lap 154 and finished in 10th place. Montoya had 18 Top 10 finishes in 2009 in qualifying for the Chase for the Cup which was crowned at Homestead-Miami (photo courtesy: John Harrelson, Getty Images Sport)
He was the talk of NASCAR in 2009—making more headlines than any driver this side of Mark Martin and eventual four-time Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson. And Juan Pablo Montoya entered the Daytona 500 looking to prove his breakout 2009 Sprint Cup season was no fluke.
He also was the talk of NASCAR 2009, but for a very different reason: Dale Earnhardt Jr., long the fan favorite of NASCAR nation, failed to make the Chase last year in Year 2 under the privileged umbrella of Hendrick Motorsports. Junior entered the Sprint Cup season-opener looking to rebound from arguably his most disappointing season.
He was briefly a man without a ride: Jamie McMurray lost his Roush Fenway Racing tie after a 2009 season in which he finished 22nd. He entered the “Great American Race” with just three wins to his credit in nine seasons of Sprint Cup racing, his first coming in 2002 in just his second career start. At that time, he drove the No. 40 for Chip Ganassi, with whom he’s now reconnected as part of Chip Ganassi with Felix Sabates Racing, and McMurray is looking to justify the reunion.
Sunday in Race 1 of the 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season—which again will culminate with the crowing of Champions during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19-21) —McMurray held off the hard-charging Earnhardt Jr. in the race’s second green-white-checkered finish attempt.
South Florida-resident Montoya, meanwhile, notched another Top 10 finish to pick up where he left off last season, when he became the first non–American driver to qualify for NASCAR’s Chase for the Sprint Cup and strung together a run of five Top 5s in the first six races of the “playoffs” to rise as high as third in the Championship standings.
McMurray, Montoya and Junior all entered Daytona International Speedway in search of some early season momentum that could help end Jimmie Johnson's four-year reign as Sprint Cup Champion, at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 21.
The race was stopped twice—resulting in delays of more than two hours—due to an on-track pothole at Daytona, and the setback nearly derailed the race. NASCAR struggled to patch the hole, and drivers knew the pavement could tear at any time after the final repair.
In a furious final two laps, NASCAR’s most popular driver drove from 10th to second places, but Earnhardt Jr. was unable to chase down McMurray, who won his fourth career Sprint Cup race. Sunday's 52nd running of the Daytona 500 had it all, but it was McMurray who was standing in victory lane after scoring an exciting victory in the first race of the 2010 season.
"Unbelievable, unbelievable," said an emotional McMurray. "I told my wife today, she was like, “If you win tonight,”….Oh, I am going to cry...it is so unreal.
"Where I was last year...and for [Bass Pro Shops’] Johnny Morris and Chip and Felix, Bass Pro Shops, to take a chance on me and let me come back, it means a lot to me. What a way to pay them back. Happy Valentine’s Day to my wife. My dad is here, it is just very emotional."
McMurray's win was his third career restrictor-plate triumph and second straight after he took the checkered flag as a member of the Roush Fenway Racing team last November at Talladega Superspeedway. He got an assist on Sunday when former Roush teammate Greg Biffle helped him with a push in the draft,
"Biffle helped me out,” McMurray said. “I spun the tires on the restart, and it’s just a gamble of which lines will get the biggest runs, but Greg gave me an unbelievable push down the backstretch.”
Biffle hung on to finish third behind the front two.
“I’m so happy for him,” said Biffle of former-mate McMurray. “I felt like I was a big part of getting him up there.”
Clint Bowyer and David Reutimann rounded out the Top 5. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, Ford Racing’s Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards, and Montoya completed the first 10 finishers.
"It was a great day for the team with Jamie winning; that was huge,” said Miami-resident Montoya. “We both had good cars and good opportunities; I just got stuck on the bottom when I was running up front and lost a lot of ground. But overall, this is big. Starting the season like this is what we need."
The race set a Daytona 500 record with 21 different leaders and 52 lead changes, and was slowed twice for two length red flags when the track surface came apart between Turns 1 and 2. A large hole began to form just past the race's halfway point, and it worsened to a point that NASCAR was forced to stop the race and attempt to repair the damage. After an hour-and-44 minute delay racing resumed, but the problem reappeared again later and another red flag resulted.
“It seemed we may have hit that hole down there and did some damage to the tire and then the tire blew,” said Jimmie Johnson, who had the unfortunate experience of hitting the hole twice and finished 135h. “We wish we didn’t hit the hole; we lost all the track position.”
Four-time reigning Champion Johnson and the rest of the Sprint Cup field will resume the pursuit for fall glory in Miami in Race 2 on Feb. 21 (3 p.m. EST, FOX TV) at Auto Club Speedway. In the end, all three of NASCAR’s premier racing series—the Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series—will crown Champions during Ford Championship Weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Nov. 19-21). For ticket information, stay tuned to THEChampionshipTrack.com or call toll free (866) 409-RACE.
Doing It Again in 2010/Kids FREE: Homestead-Miami Speedway is the only venue ever to host all of North America’s premier motorsports Championships, and it’s more of the same this fall as THE Championship Track is the site for both the Izod IndyCar (Oct. 1-2) Championship and NASCAR’s Ford Championship Weekend (Nov. 19-21), as well as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series “Grand Prix of Miami” March 6. Kids 12 & under are FREE to six of the seven races. For tickets, call (866) 409-RACE or visit THEChampionshipTrack.com.
MotorRacingNetwork.com contributed to this report.