A winner in just his second Cup start while filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin in 2002, Jamie McMurray couldn't wait to get started on a full-time Cup career the next year.
Chip Ganassi Racing was in contention for the championship much of the year with Marlin, and McMurray figured his new team would hit the ground running, as well. And five top-fives, 13 top-10s and a pole while finishing 13th in points wasn't a bad rookie season by any stretch of the imagination.
The thing is, McMurray's career never really took off from there. He just missed making the inaugural Chase for the Nextel Cup in '04 and ended the year 11th with nine top-fives and 23 top-10s in 36 starts.
Expectations were even higher last year, but things fizzled as he had a worse year statistically than as a rookie, leading just 39 laps and finishing 12th in points. Now that he's at Roush Racing, though, McMurray's feeling like a rookie all over again.
"I kind of have the same feeling going into this season as I did in 2003 after winning at Charlotte and with the wins that Sterling had [in '02]," McMurray said. "It's somewhat like Matt [Kenseth] said, when you know that you have cars that are capable of winning, you just have to do your part and work with your team and put yourself in the right position, so I'm very optimistic about the season."
McMurray had to adapt to a new crew chief as a Cup rookie and now he has to learn to work with Jimmy Fennig, who led Kurt Busch to the '04 crown. The setups that carried all five Roush cars to the Chase last year are different from what he was using at Ganassi, so he faces a bit of a learning curve.
One of his first orders of business was simply learning the names of all his crew guys. Although he knows all drivers say they're "excited" to start a new season, he said he's not just saying the things a driver's supposed to say.
"I feel like I'm with the best team in our sport right now," McMurray said simply.
McMurray, of course, is also learning new teammates, but is the most familiar with Carl Edwards, another Missouri native. Both drove for Mike Mittler in the Craftsman Truck Series, and Edwards was looking for his chance while McMurray was still with the team.
"I remember Carl showing up at Mittler Brothers truck shop in [a car that] I think was painted with a brush. It was orange, and it was like a Chevette or something," McMurray said with a laugh.
That isn't all McMurray remembers about his first look at Edwards.
"He had a really cute girl with him, though." McMurray said.
Rest assured, Edwards took note of McMurray's interest.
"What I was actually gonna bring up is that we never really competed on the track, but you were giving her the eye and that was a little bit of competition there," Edwards said. "I was ready to get out of the shop as quick as I could."
Now, though, McMurray is more than happy to be sharing a race team with Edwards. Having watched Edwards, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle and Kenseth have success with Roush, McMurray can't wait to get in on the action.
As for specific goals, McMurray said he hasn't put anything in writing. He said that, obviously, his goal is to win races and make the Chase. The one thing he's sure of is that having Roush Racing's resources can only help.
And the biggest resource might be his teammates. Marlin also was struggling on the Ganassi team last season, and Casey Mears is still looking for his first win, so having four teammates who were in the Chase seems like a step in the right direction.
"When I viewed leaving Ganassi and coming to Roush, that was one of my big decision makers, was not only did I feel like I was getting in the best equipment, but I knew that I was going to have two rookies as teammates this year [at Ganassi: David Stremme and Reed Sorenson]," McMurray said. "If we had won a lot of races over the last couple of years, then you would feel maybe you didn't need to pull information out of all of your teammates, but we hadn't.
"When you look at the teammates that I'm going to have this year, it's so hard to compare two race teams and not knock on the other, but Matt and Mark and Carl, Greg, I mean, all those guys have won races and are incredible drivers. I'm certainly going to dig all I can out of those guys and see what I can learn."
Even if it turns out Roush's cars aren't all that different in terms of potential than what McMurray was driving the past few years, the fresh start has provided a major boost mentally. That's already going a long way with the 29-year-old.
"Racing, regardless of what people say, is a mental sport, and if you believe you can win, if you're in a car that can win, you more than likely will," McMurray said. "If you have a negative attitude, typically you don't get very good results.
"The fact that all of my teammates have won last year and the team I'm with has won [with Busch driving], I don't know that I view it as pressure for me, everyone in the garage area has that, whether they're in a car that's capable of winning or not, they all want to [win] and there's pressure to win."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at NASCAR Scene magazine, which has a Web site at www.scenedaily.com .