CONCORD, N.C. - For those who questioned why Chip Ganassi hired Jamie McMurray to drive one of his Winston Cup Series cars next year, Sunday's UAW-GM Quality 500 became the answer.
McMurray, who's never finished any higher than second in a Busch Series race, became the most improbable winner on the senior circuit in more than 15 years, holding off Bobby Labonte in the final 50 laps at the waterlogged Lowe's Motor Speedway.
McMurray was hired last month to drive a third car for Ganassi next season, a move that caught everyone by surprise since the veteran car owner usually surrounds himself with experienced people.
When the team's lead driver, Sterling Marlin, suffered a broken vertebra in his neck during a Sept. 29 crash at Kansas City, McMurray's appointment became immediate.
In just his second start as a relief driver, McMurray showed the poise and savvy of a seasoned veteran. Labonte pressed from second place several times in a furious stretch drive, but McMurray never relented.
"People asked me why (I hired McMurray)," Ganassi said. "All these kids out there are fast. Jamie has heart."
Marlin is expected to make a full recovery and return to his ride next year. Until then, McMurray is scheduled to drive six of the last seven races of the year in relief so he can maintain his rookie status next season. The team will hire another driver for next week's race at Martinsville, Va., since McMurray still has a full-time commitment for the Busch Series race at Memphis, Tenn .
McMurray led the final 30 laps and appeared to be running away to an easy victory until his car bobbled in the fourth turn on the final lap. Labonte got as close as his left-rear tire, but McMurray pulled away to win by five car lengths, putting the finishing touch on one of the most shocking victories in the sport's history.
"This is huge," McMurray said. "It was a difficult situation with Sterling getting hurt, but man what a great opportunity. I'm in shock."
Labonte said he did everything he could to steal the victory, but McMurray refused to wilt.
"Jamie's car was a little too good for us at the end," he said. "We wanted to win the race. But he did a great job. His little old Dodge was pretty fast. I tried everything I could think of, but it wasn't enough."
McMurray joined Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch as a first-time winner this year. He also joined the list of improbable winners that includes Greg Sacks (1985 Pepsi 400 at Daytona), Derrike Cope (1990 Daytona 500), Ron Bouchard (1981 Talladega 500) and Jody Ridley (1981 Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Del.).
Labonte's teammate, Tony Stewart, finished third to increase his lead in the NASCAR Winston Cup point standings to 97 over rookie Jimmie Johnson.
Heavy showers Sunday morning delayed the start of the race by more than three hours. It also turned the infield grass into a quagmire that played a prominent role in the biggest crash of the afternoon.
Todd Bodine drove into the grass to avoid hitting Ward Burton from behind, but wound up causing a bigger mess when he lost control of his car and veered back into traffic.
A total of 10 cars were involved, including Burton. None of the drivers were injured.
Reach Don Coble at email@example.com.
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