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‘Big game hunter’ McMurray looks for more major victories

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Jamie McMurray’s first full day at Daytona International Speedway included a photo opportunity of the driver standing amid the track’s famed trophies.

On his wrist was the Rolex he’d won two weeks earlier in the prestigious 24-hour sports car race.

McMurray, with just seven career Sprint Cup wins, certainly knows how to pick the right time to win. So much so that team owner Chip Ganassi deemed him “a big game hunter.”

With last month’s Rolex victory, McMurray joined Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt as the only three drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and the sports car race.

When asked why he seems to only win the big races — among his other victories are the Brickyard 400, the Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR’s all-star race — McMurray said because “they pay the most.”

The reality is that McMurray doesn’t know why he seems to shine in some of the big races. He saw a picture that had been created to show him with Andretti and Foyt and was blown away at his accomplishment.

“That was mindboggling to see that and it be real, not something you made at the carnival,” he’s said. “That was really cool and it was really special to be in that group. I look at five years ago, I wouldn’t have thought I would be here.”

McMurray broke into NASCAR’s top series in 2002 as Ganassi’s replacement driver for the injured Sterling Marlin. He won in his second career start.

But his next win didn’t come until 2007, after he’d left Ganassi to drive for Jack Roush in an opportunity McMurray believed would help him contend weekly and maybe even make a run at a championship.

Instead, he was miserable at the big organization. The results never came and he found himself longing for a return to Ganassi, where he was a big fish in a small pond in the two-car system.

He got his chance to go back in 2010 when Ganassi had an open seat and welcomed the return of his former driver.

How did they celebrate? By winning the Daytona 500 in their first race back together.

But the consistency has not come, and McMurray has been part of a long reset at Ganassi, which has slowly turned itself into an organization that can contend for victories. His 386 laps led last season were a career high, topping even his three-win season in 2010.

There was no time to revel in the progress, though, as McMurray’s crew chief left Ganassi after just one season to return to Hendrick Motorsports.

The team hired Matt McCall, an engineer last season for championship contender Ryan Newman, and McMurray had his third crew chief in three years.

All that change isn’t ideal for a creature of habit such as McMurray, but so far he couldn’t be happier with McCall. Despite not having met McCall prior to his first day with the team, McMurray said the relationship has taken off.

“I did not know Matt prior to him showing up at our shop, never had sent a text or anything. They just said ‘This is your guy,’ ” McMurray said.

“But Matt has a gift which I think all successful crew chiefs need to have in that he’s a really good people person. He’s done an amazing job — we already had an amazing group of people — but I think he brought them altogether.”

McMurray also likes that McCall is a former driver, which is a current trend throughout the garage. He listed reigning championship-winning crew chief Rodney Childers and Brad Keselowski crew chief Paul Wolfe as the top two in the Sprint Cup Series, and noted both are former drivers.

“I think Matt even one-ups those guys because he has an engineering background,” McMurray said.

“But it’s really been easy for us to learn how to communicate with each other. I’ll say to Matt ‘You know what I’m talking about’ and he’ll shake his head yes. I’m just really excited about Matt.”

McCall goes into his first season as crew chief hopeful that he can turn McMurray into a driver who can win anywhere and put together a run at a first championship.

“I think sometimes, especially if you win big races, it’s easy to get sort of sidetracked,” McCall said. “So I think to have the goal to win a championship, that’s what you’re reaching for, I think will push to try to keep him on track. I think that will be able to push him to stay focused.”

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