CONCORD, N.C. — Everyone was waiting for a wild card.
What they didn’t see coming was a spoiler.
Jamie McMurray, who failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup this season, but instead won NASCAR’s two biggest races, once again stole the spotlight with a surprising win in Saturday night’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
With the growing perception that Jimmie Johnson, who has won the past four series titles, was well on his way to a fifth, talk the past week had centered on what races would be considered wild cards and shake up the standings.
While many remained focused on the Chase, McMurray won yet another race, his third of the season to accompany victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
McMurray and crew chief Kevin Manion were disappointed they missed out on battling for the title, but stayed dedicated to continuing what they had started.
“It gave us time at the shop to actually take a breath and say, ‘OK, we didn’t make this Chase; all right, it hit,’ ” said Manion. “Now, what do we have to do for the next 10 races to still race good but have a little bit of fun?”
It’s not like NASCAR fans shouldn’t have seen this coming.
McMurray’s win came almost eight years to the day – Oct. 13, 2002 – since his first series win, in the fall Charlotte race in his second series start.
He was an upstart young driver, just signed to a Cup deal by owner Chip Ganassi, and was called on to begin his career early and substitute for Sterling Marlin, who had to sit out with a broken neck.
“It’s different circumstances. I feel this is my team and it’s a team that has been put together over the past 11 months, 12 months, and it’s mine,” McMurray, now 34, said. “Obviously, I’ve grown up a lot in the last eight years.
“I’m married and expecting a child. My life has changed a lot. I feel like I’m a lot smarter racer and try to put myself in a better position … than what I did back then.”
To earn another surprise Charlotte win, McMurray needed to get past Kyle Busch, who dominated much of the race. On a restart with 21 of 334 laps remaining, McMurray, then second, dove below Busch in Turn 1 and came out of Turn 2 the leader.
“I knew that catching Kyle and passing Kyle would be two different things,” McMurray said. “We were very equal in Turns 1 and 2, but I was quite a bit quicker than he was in 3 and 4.”
Johnson, who has a 41-point lead, was third; points runner-up Denny Hamlin fourth; and Greg Biffle fifth.