CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The victory party was bittersweet for Chip Ganassi's Racing team.
The crew members were thrilled that they had proven how strong they were, that they were still a championship caliber team even though their shot at the Winston Cup title was lost when Sterling Marlin was sidelined with an injury.
But when the joy of Jamie McMurray's victory wore off, the feelings of satisfaction were replaced by a little bit of guilt. This was Marlin's team and he wasn't around to enjoy the party.
"Hey Jamie, remember to thank Sterling," team manager Tony Glover immediately radioed after McMurray crossed the finish line to win the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Marlin, unable to defend his victory from a year ago, was at home in Tennessee, watching the race on TV while wearing a bulky neck brace to support the fractured vertebra he got two weeks ago in a wreck at Kansas.
He'd been at the track earlier in the weekend, helping the 26-year-old McMurray get a feel for the No. 40 Dodge.
But he left on race day, unsure he could stand idle at the track and watch his replacement drive what everyone knew was a car capable of winning the race. So he rooted from home, confident his team would do everything possible to get a strong finish for McMurray.
They did better than that, talking him around the track and encouraging him on to a victory in McMurray's second Winston Cup start - a new NASCAR record. Marlin then called him as the team celebrated in Victory Lane.
"It was pretty cool," Marlin said Monday. "I'm glad for the team, they needed a boost like that. And I was glad for Jamie, he did real good."
Marlin insisted he wasn't the least bit bitter about the win and felt no animosity toward McMurray, a Busch series driver Ganassi hired to pilot a third Winston Cup car next season. But he got to step into Ganassi's top team when Marlin, who led the points for 25 weeks earlier this season, was forced out of the car.
"It's fine," Marlin said. "You been around long enough, you learn to take the good with the bad. And this is a good thing, for the team, for the guys, for everyone who has worked so hard this season."
That they have, working long hours and putting everything they had into their run at the championship. They were devastated - crew members broke down in tears - when they learned Marlin would miss the final seven races of the season and it seemed like all their hard work was for naught.
After a few emotional days, they reset their goals in a team meeting and went back to work.
"We still had a job to do, and that was to give Jamie the best equipment we could and to try to win some races before the end of the year," crew chief Lee McCall said. "Yeah, we were upset, it was a huge blow.
"But what were we going to do? Give up on the season? That's not who we are."
So they've successfully silenced their critics, and they've had plenty all season.
Their run atop the standings was chalked up as dumb luck as skeptics watched and waited for the team to falter. Because Marlin won his only two races of the season in March, it was believed the team had fallen behind its competitors in setups and strategy.
And when Ganassi hired McMurray, a relative unknown who had never won a race in the Busch or truck series, few could figure out what he was thinking.
But he didn't hesitate to use McMurray when he needed a replacement for Marlin, turning the eager driver over to Glover and Andy Graves, his other team manager, while Ganassi stepped back and let them ready him for his debut.
McMurray was impressive last week at Talladega, running with the leaders until his Dodge ran out of gas late in the race, and he was calm and confident all weekend at Charlotte. And even though the team didn't tell anyone but McMurray, everyone thought they had a shot at winning Sunday.
"This team is all about motivation and heart," Ganassi said. "This is just a continuation of what Tony Glover and Andy Graves and Lee McCall, and all the guys that put this team together.
"For Jamie to step in, those are big shoes to fill. But this team, they just want to will this thing to the front, every single person. Every single person at our place can take some stock in this victory."
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