CONCORD, N.C. -- Jamie McMurray, driving in only his second Winston Cup race, shocked the NASCAR world Sunday with a victory in the UAW-GM 500.
McMurray, scheduled to move up from the Busch Series in 2003, was pressed into service early by team owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates when veteran Sterling Marlin, who led the points much of the season, was knocked out for the final seven races of the season by a fractured vertebra.
The 26-year-old McMurray has never won a Busch race and drove to a 26th-place finish in his Cup debut a week earlier in Talladega, Ala. On Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway, he was strong from start to finish.
After taking the lead for the final time on lap 304 of the 334-lap event, McMurray appeared on the way to an easy win. A slight bobble in the fourth turn four laps from the end allowed 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte to cut most of the lead.
The inexperienced McMurray was up to the job, though, holding off Labonte and actually pulling away on the final lap to win by 0.35 seconds - about five car-lengths.
"I don't believe it," McMurray said in a frantic victory circle. "This was a really hard situation with Sterling being hurt, but what an opportunity."
Series leader Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate, finished third and padded his points lead.
The race ended under the lights after rain delayed the start by three hours.
McMurray did a burnout in which the silver and red car nearly disappeared in the billowing white cloud of smoke as the crowd of about 140,000 roared.
In victory circle, McMurray talked to Marlin by cell phone.
Marlin joked, "That's way too soon," then added, "I knew Jamie was going to be a good driver for us."
McMurray led four times for a race-high total of 96 laps as he broke Kevin Harvick's year-old record as the quickest winner in NASCAR's modern era. Harvick won in his third race after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in the second race of 2001.
The starting lineup was determined by car owner points after qualifying was rained out. That put McMurray in fifth place. He stayed near or at the front throughout the race.
"His little old Dodge was pretty fast," Labonte said. "I tried everything I could think of, but it wasn't enough."
Jeff Gordon, struggling to remain in the points chase, finished fourth, followed by Rusty Wallace, rookie Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and rookie Ryan Newman. All but Burton are part of the closest points race in NASCAR history.
Johnson, who led for one week before Stewart took over the top spot, moved to second, 97 points behind.
Mark Martin, who came into the race second, trailing Stewart by 72 points, struggled late in the race with an engine problem and wound up a lap down in 16th. He fell to third, 122 points back, followed by Newman (165 behind), Wallace (192 behind) and Gordon (211 behind).
When the race finally started at 3:45 p.m., the field followed the pace car around for five more laps before green-flag racing began. The infield grass remained soaked and eventually helped ignite a 10-car crash.
The big wreck the drivers avoided a week earlier at dangerous Talladega came here on lap 230. Todd Bodine, Ward Burton and Jeff Green, back in the pack, were racing three-wide onto the frontstretch. Bodine got his left-side tires in the soaked grass, slid up the banking into Burton, who in turn hit Green. Before it was over, cars and debris were strewn across the grass and the end of pit road.
"It was my fault, obviously," Bodine said. "Ward and Jeff slowed up; I don't know why. I was either going to run into Ward or get underneath him. I didn't want to do it."
Burton said he had to slow when Green moved alongside him.
"Todd's a great driver but, sometimes, he needs a little more patience," Burton said. "It's his responsibility to look ahead and think ahead. I can't do it for him."
There were no injuries reported.
That was the last of five cautions in the race, the others brought out by oil on the track or single-car crashes.
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