By Joe Dunn
The checkered flag flew at the Daytona 500 and Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt Jr. flew by to start the 2010 season one and two in the points. The win for McMurray was huge as he debuted for his new team at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and Dale Jr.’s close second was a long awaited resurgence for NASCAR’s most popular driver.
So, does the finish of the first race of the year, that also happens to be NASCAR’s biggest race of the year, secure a great season for both of these young men? It doesn’t secure anything if you look at history. Look at 4 time Series champion Jimmie Johnson, over the past three seasons he started the year at Daytona with a best finish of 27th, yet he came back late in late season charges to capture the title. But look at the winners of the Daytona 500, last year Matt Kenseth grabbed the big win, with Kevin Harvick in tow and the big surprise A J Almendinger in third. The season ended with Kenseth 14th, Harvick 19th and Almendinger 24th in the points. The one-two for 2008 was Ryan Newman and Kurt Bush, they finished the season 17th and 18th. So finishing first and second does not carry a lot of weight for a great season.
This is not to diminish the accomplishments of these two very talented drivers, but a look at reality. McMurray began his cup career with Ganassi back in 2002, filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin for 6 races, winning his second start. The next three years, he finished the season 13th, 11th and 12th, and then moved to Roush racing to replace Kurt Bush. His success at RFR never materialized as his best efforts resulted in a best 16th place points finish in 2008. It appeared through the years that McMurray had lost that magic after moving top RFR and his future with an organization that was being forced to reduce by a team. Halfway through the 2009 season, McMurray had no sure ride in place for 2010, so when Martin Truex Jr. announced that he was leaving the No. 1 car at EGR, opportunity came a knockin‘. It is looking so far that that was a very good move for McMurray, but it is no guarantee of making the Chase.
As for Dale Earnhardt Jr., he has always been good at Daytona, in 20 races, his average finish is 11th, with 2 wins, 6 top 5’s and 11 top 10’s. Even in his bad years he had had good finishes at Daytona and Talladega, yet Sunday he appeared to be more focused and disciplined in his run to the front. Unlike his Hendrick Motor Sports teammates he stayed out of trouble, kept his equipment in tact to be the only HMS car in the top 10. Dale Jr. has had some pretty rough seasons of late, and the instant success at HMS that many of his fans had predicted failed to materialize in his first year and his efforts were even more dismal last year. So when Rick Hendrick started calling the changes mid-season last year and ended the year with a commitment to concentrate efforts on a turn around, all eyes were on Daytona. A solid qualifying effort, guaranteed a front row start and overshadowed an 11th place finish in the Bud Shootout. The second place finish spelled success for the off season efforts, and gives the No. 88 AMP Chevrolet team reason to be upbeat. One race does not spell a winning season, but that race did give Junior Nation a new sense of optimism, and hopefully that energy will be the driving force for Junior and his team this year.
The haulers are already enroute to Fontana for the Auto Club 500 Sunday and many of the drivers have headed that way too. But even this weekend will not determine the true success of these two teams, as the real answer will come only after the next 25 races, to see who makes it into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship. But that fact won’t dim the hopes of Dale Jr. and Jamie’s fans, so let the cheering begin.