For Jamie McMurray, life's just grand

2/20/2011 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jamie McMurray was relaxed in the back of his hauler, not far from the infield grass where a year ago he was on hands and knees in tears after winning the Daytona 500, when the subject of hot tubs, naked coeds and spring break parties entered the conversation.

Got your attention?

It got the attention of many in 2004, when McMurray was one of several drivers mentioned in a tabloid story about partying with Dale Earnhardt Jr. in Panama City, Fla.

"We were in Panama City," McMurray said with a laugh.

So there were parties with naked coeds in a hot tub filled with beer?

"No, but it sounds good," said McMurray, still laughing.

Anybody who formed an impression of the Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver from that story is way off base. McMurray doesn't live that exciting of a life outside his race car. Never has. As a teenager and even young adult, he was the one who snuck away from his friends and went home to sleep early. Before he and his wife, Christy, became parents on Thanksgiving Day 2010, he was in bed by 8:30 on most nights.

"I've never been a partier -- ever," McMurray said.

He doesn't like the spotlight, either, which made last season interesting. It's hard to avoid attention when you win the two biggest races of the Sprint Cup season in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

But McMurray has done his best to downplay the significance of the victories. Two weeks after his Daytona 500 win, after appearances on "Late Show with David Letterman" and "Regis and Kelly," he was back in his Mooresville, N.C., garage working on his biggest passion outside of family: go-karts.

McMurray would just as soon spend an uninterrupted day inside the shop he rents from former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth than to make a public appearance that might promote his driving career. He looks at himself as the Steve Stricker of the NASCAR garage.

"There's only one Tiger Woods in golf and it doesn't matter how many events Steve Stricker wins," McMurray said in advance of his opportunity to defend his 500 title on Sunday. "And I'm OK with that."

He really is. McMurray doesn't have a huge ego like many star athletes. He is the same person now than he was when he replaced the injured Sterling Marlin in 2002 and won at Charlotte Motor Speedway in his second race.

He hasn't been spoiled by successes or failures. He hasn't let life-changing moments such as last year's big wins go to his head. When he cries -- and he does often in emotional moments -- it's sincere.

Ask anybody, from former Roush teammate Greg Biffle to current teammate Juan Pablo Montoya, and they'll overwhelm you with "good guy" talk.

"I don't know that Jamie has anything mysterious about him," Biffle said.

He really doesn't.

"What people don't realize is that the guy you see in interviews, that's the real him," said Lorin Ranier, McMurray's longtime spotter. "There's no acting, there's no polish. That's the real guy. He's that genuine."

Raw emotion

McMurray had finished all the Victory Lane requirements following the 2010 Daytona 500. He was seated behind a podium inside the Daytona International Speedway media center between team owners Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates on one side and crew chief Kevin Manion on the other.

"I really can't put it into words the way it feels," McMurray said.

A rush of emotion overcame McMurray. His head dropped. Tears flowed.

It happened several other times during the press conference.

"Just a whirlwind of emotions," McMurray recalled as he relived the moment. "It doesn't seem real initially. You drive back around after taking the checkered flag and, gosh, you look at the people in the stands and you want to do a burnout and do all of that.

"But what you really want to do is get with your guys. I just remember being out there and being all alone and wanting to get to Victory Lane and see everybody."

The win couldn't have come at a better time for McMurray. He had only a one-year deal in his second go-round with Ganassi after being the odd-man out at Roush Fenway, which was forced to shrink from five to four cars to meet NASCAR's rules. There were concerns that he didn't fit the image primary sponsor Bass Pro Shops wanted.

"Winning the Daytona 500 was good because it started our season off as a team together," McMurray said. "You win the biggest race of the year, sponsors are happy, owners are happy … everybody is excited.

"It's really hard to say it changed your life immediately. What changes is more people recognize you. People view you differently. I don't see myself any different, but the people around you do."

Sponsors certainly do. McDonald's inked to be one of McMurray's sponsors a few days after the 500. Bass Pro Shops later extended its deal with EGR past 2010, and McMurray eventually got a new multiyear deal.

But none of that stands out most for McMurray. Winning at Indianapolis doesn't, either.

What stands out was walking into the media center after winning the October race at Charlotte and not seeing a look of shock on everyone's face. It was like he belonged, something he'd never felt before.

And he didn't cry.

"The fact is no one wants to go in the media center and cry," McMurray said. "I mean, no one wants that. If I won the Daytona 500 this year that would not happen in the media center, I don't think.

"And the reason being is that I was able to win three races last year. The feeling that comes from winning a race when you haven't won one in a while is overwhelming."

Missing in action

Jim McMurray was at a bar near his hotel 30 minutes north of Daytona Beach when his son took the checkered after the second green-white-checkered restart to end the six-hour-plus marathon marred by a hole between Turns 1 and 2. The elder McMurray left the track early to get out of the cold and get ahead of the traffic he might face on his motorcycle.

"There was a lady sitting a couple of chairs from me," Jim recalled. "When they had the restart she jumped up and started cheering for Kevin Harvick. It didn't take me long to drown her out."

Then, there were the tears that could have drowned half the bar.

"You bet," Jim said. "I hate to say this, but [Jamie] gets that from me. He used to make fun of me for crying after he won. It's an emotional thing. You have no control over it sometimes."

It's really hard to say it changed your life immediately. What changes is more people recognize you. People view you differently. I don't see myself any different, but the people around you do.

-- Jamie McMurray on winning
the 2010 Daytona 500

Jim returned to Daytona the following morning to be with his son for the champion's breakfast and to induct the winning car into Daytona USA. It was obvious then and obvious now how close he and Jamie are.

But if you want to see just how close they are, look into their karting history. From the time Jamie was 8 years old in his hometown of Joplin, Mo., his father had him in a go-kart. They worked side by side in the shop and on the track, winning a World Karting Championship in 1991.

Before Jamie came to Daytona for Speedweek, he came here for KartWeek. In December, he was inducted into the World Karting Association Hall of Fame in Daytona.

"That's going to be a highlight he'll remember just like the 500," Jim said.

Jamie got back into karting four years ago at the urging of his father, who still builds and races them. He's spent much of the past year building a kart from the ground up, preferring that over the mostly foreign-made karts used by competitors.

He sounded almost as proud of finishing second at Daytona in his kart in December as he did winning the 500.

It's been a release for Jamie and a relief for his team.

"When I didn't have karting, I wore people out at our race shop … and I would drive crew chiefs crazy," Jamie said. "I'm like that when you don't have anything to wake up to every day."

When the new carbon-fiber seats came to NASCAR a few years ago, Jamie spent six months working on seat inserts, headrests and anything he could find "just so I'd have something to do." He later bought a shock dyno for his garage to study that aspect of the cars.

But karts are his true love.

"It reminds me of being a kid," Jamie said.

It reminds him of what he calls an "amazing" childhood with amazing parents. It reminds him of the pure fun that led him to racing, the fun that often gets lost in contracts and sponsor obligations.

If Jamie has to be in the spotlight, he prefers it with long lines of kids at a karting event wanting his autograph.

"And he'll always go out and take pictures little kids," Jim said. "That's something they'll remember all their life."

Watching his son win the Daytona 500 from a hotel bar is something Jim will remember all of his life.

"It hasn't wore off yet," said the elder McMurray, who is flying on his son's plane to guarantee he doesn't miss the finish if history repeats on Sunday. "I hate that I missed it, but I'd leave 30 minutes early again if I knew it meant he would win."

Trying times

McMurray leaned back on the leather couch. He looked comfortable, but he's learned through his experience at Roush Fenway never to get too comfortable.

"You ever hear the saying, 'Be careful what you wish for?'" he asked.

McMurray's career appeared ready to rocket when he left Ganassi after finishing 12th in points in 2005 for Roush Fenway. He initially was supposed to be in the No. 6 Roush car with Pat Tryson as his crew chief beginning in 2007. But when Roush released Kurt Busch to Penske Racing a year early, Ganassi released McMurray, putting him into the No. 97 Roush car with no proven crew chief.

After going through three crew chiefs and finishing 25th in points, some wondered if McMurray would have a ride in 2007.

Things didn't really get much better. Looking back, McMurray believes part of the problem was the big-team mindset that the setup or chassis good for one driver is good for all. McMurray never got comfortable, finishing 17th, 16th and 22nd in points the next three seasons, respectively.

Because he was the only driver whose contract and sponsor contract expired in 2009, he became expendable.

"What they did for me last year [at EGR], and what wasn't done at Roush, is that they built the cars around the driver," McMurray explained. "If I had to run the cars that Juan is running, not the cars but the setups, I would have ran very similar to how I did at Roush."

Winning three races and a career-best four poles was just the vindication McMurray needed.

"I was devastated I wasn't going to be at Roush because I felt like that was one of the powerhouse teams," McMurray said. "Then all of a sudden I ended up back with Chip. And you have all that success.

"Everything happens for a reason. Sometimes things don't go the way you want them and they work out just fine."

Another life-changing moment

McMurray was determined not to cry as he watched Christy from behind a curtain in the delivery room Thanksgiving Day.

"When I got in there, somebody told me the first time I hear the kid cry that I'll cry, that it'll take you over," McMurray said. "I said, 'No, I'm an emotional person but I don't think that is going to break me down.'"

Then came the first scream from Carter Scott McMurray.

"I was like, 'Oooooooh! OK, it's going to be tough,'" McMurray said. "Then I looked down and tears were running down Christy's face. I'm like, 'I'm done.'"

As much as winning Daytona and Indianapolis were life-changing for McMurray, this was more. Much more.

"At Daytona there was one point when I got out of the car and pointed to the sky," McMurray said. "I'm like thanking God. My life had been turned around in a real short amount of time and … I don't know, it was like I can't believe this was happening to me right now.

"But being in that delivery room when Carter was born … it was like nothing I had ever experienced. That's not even comparable to winning races."

This is the McMurray people need to know, the one they need to appreciate if he finds himself in Victory Lane again on Sunday, and not the one portrayed in a tabloid magazine.

"No," McMurray said again with a laugh. "But it sounds good."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.