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NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Auto Club Great American Storylines: McMurray Tale Worth Retelling For media members, this is like having a Christmas in February. In terms of storylines, Jamie McMurray is the gift that keeps on ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News & Notes -- Auto Club

Great American Storylines: McMurray Tale Worth Retelling For media members, this is like having a Christmas in February. In terms of storylines, Jamie McMurray is the gift that keeps on giving.

First and foremost, McMurray (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/ Tracker Boats Chevrolet) is the new Daytona 500 champion but that's only the beginning. Gentlemen, start your angles:

The 500 victory was his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series debut with his new team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates.

His new team is more or less his old team. When McMurray broke into the series in 2002, it was with the organization run by Ganassi and Sabates. They have since merged with the former Dale Earnhardt Inc. outfit.

McMurray's victory in the "Great American Race" was a dream come true not only for him but also for his dad, Jim, who has been his most ardent supporter throughout his racing career. The two still race gokarts together, including a yearly trip to Daytona International Speedway's annual December karting events.

His dad actually missed his son winning the 500. He left the speedway early on his motorcycle, to get back to his hotel before the traffic got heavy ... and no, we're not making that up.

McMurray is a product of NASCAR's developmental ladder system, having competed in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series. In 1997, at the age of 21, he won the track championship at Lebanon (Mo.) I-44 Speedway, beating five-time national champion Larry Phillips for the title.

McMurray only has four NASCAR Sprint Cup victories in his career, but three have come in restrictorplate events -- Daytona in July 2007, Talladega last November and now, the 500. A case could be made that right now, McMurray is the sport's preeminent restrictor-plate racer.

So, for McMurray, there's a lot going on, going into Sunday's second race of the season, the Auto Club 500 in Fontana, Calif. McMurray has never won there, but he does have five top 10s in 13 starts and a pretty good average finish of 16.4.

McMurray is amid a whirlwind week that is required stuff for Daytona 500 champions. It started with the annual Daytona 500 champion's breakfast Monday morning at the Daytona 500 Experience, with McMurray's winning car being put on display at the fan attraction -- where it will stay for the rest of the year.

Also Monday, McMurray flew to New York City for appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, Good Day New York, Live With Regis And Kelly, FOX Business Network and ESPN.

Wednesday's schedule has him in San Francisco for a Victory Tour cable car ride beginning at the Golden Gate Bridge, with stops at Fisherman's Wharf and Ghirardelli's Square, followed by a press conference at Willie Mays Plaza.

Thursday is his Los Angeles day that includes a double-decker bus tour of the city with media plus visits to local media outlets and Los Angeles City Hall.

NASCAR Sprint Cup, Etc.

California and NASCAR go way back, to the sport's beginnings. Early on, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. recognized the popularity of motorsports in the Golden State, while envisioning the long-term potential of that popularity.

Go back to the 1951 schedule for what is now known as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, which had five races in California. That was the start of what you could label a Big Bill mission statement. (One of many missions, it should be noted.)

He called it "sea to shining sea." Not exactly original, but he made his point.

"As soon as he realized the organization NASCAR was actually going to come together in 1947, he immediately started thinking about racing in California," said former NASCAR West Series Director Ken Clapp.

In '51, those five races were divided between three California dirt tracks: Carrell Speedway in Gardena, Marchbanks Speedway in Hanford and a super-fast track at Oakland Stadium.

From 1970-81, the NASCAR Sprint Cup season opened not with "The Great American Race, " the Daytona 500, but rather in Riverside, Calif, at the old Riverside International Raceway road course. From 1981-86, Riverside hosted the season finale.

From 1974-80, Ontario Motor Speedway hosted the finale and in '79, Richard Petty clinched the last of his seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championships at Ontario, by finishing fifth in the L.A. Times 500.

Today, with three NASCAR Sprint Cup events held in California along with the nation's top short-track event, the Toyota Showdown at Irwindale, Big Bill's original hopes for a NASCAR presence in the state have been realized. ...

Big-time encouragement at the Daytona 500 for popular 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Bobby Labonte, in the form of a 21st-place finish. Labonte and the No. 71 Chevrolet team had the best results among single-car entries. The run certainly boosted the confidence of team owner Kevin Buckler.

"We're here to be a contender and have now begun to clearly distance ourselves from the other new teams in the sport," Buckler said. ...

When AJ Allmendinger (No. 43 Best Buy Ford) led Laps 45-47 of the Daytona 500, it was the first time the famed No. 43 had led the "Great American Race" since 2002. ...

Scott Speed (No. 82 Red Bull Toyota) surprised a lot of people by taking the lead on Lap 165 of the Daytona 500. Speed then kept surprising, ending up 19th. That result was huge for a team expected to be battling to stay among the top 35 teams in owner points and earn automatic starting spots each week. ...

Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) will stop by the Varsity, a legend in downtown Atlanta and known as the "World's Largest Drive-In Restaurant," for lunch on Wednesday (Feb. 17).

A select group of NASCAR fans will be invited to join him.

Fans are welcomed for the event and they're asked to wear Busch, NASCAR or AMS gear. Speedway staff will choose 20 "mostappropriately" dressed fans to have lunch with Busch, who is the defending champion of the Kobalt Tools 500, set for March 7 at AMS.

In addition to the lunch, Busch also will serve as an impromptu waiter, serving food to unsuspecting patrons while Busch's No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge will be on display outside of the restaurant's parking deck.

For more information on the Kobalt Tools 500 race weekend or to purchase tickets, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (770) 946-3917, (877) 9-AMS-TIX, or visit ...

Last year, Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Ford) followed up his Daytona 500 triumph by winning the Auto Club 500. Kenseth, the 2003 series champion, hasn't won since.

But if ever the stage was set for ending a drought, this is it: Kenseth has won three of the last four February races at Auto Club Speedway.

Kenseth finished eighth in the Daytona 500 "We got lucky," he said. .. .

It was a pretty weird Daytona 500 for Martin Truex Jr. (No. 56 NAPA Toyota). He had to watch his old car, the No. 1, win the race. But at the same time, he had his best finish in the event, sixth, in his debut driving for Michael Waltrip Racing. He had an excellent shot to win the race.

"I'm extremely proud and excited about coming out of Daytona with the results we had," Truex said.

"I really wasn't sure what to expect. From the first test, working together with [crew chief] Pat Tryson, I knew we were going to be good. He is a pleasure to work with. He really takes his job seriously, and yet, he likes to have fun. I think the guys on the NAPA team really look up to him because of his experience and knowledge. He is respected and it goes a long way with everyone.

"For me, I just try and do the best job I can. As far as the communication and getting along with Pat and all that other stuff that goes along with the relationship, it came really easy. Hopefully, we can continue on what we started and win some races." ...

David Reutimann (No. 00 Aaron's Dream Machine Toyota) finished fifth in the Daytona 500, an immediate reminder that his solid effort in 2009 -- he finished 16th in the series points and almost qualified for the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- was no fluke.

Reutimann, Truex's teammate at MWR, comes into this weekend sixth in points.

"It was an up and down day," Reutimann said. "We weren't the best we didn't feel like at various times, but all in all the car drove good and the guys made good pit stops. We just kind of got up there when it counted."

All in all, a good opening week for Michael Waltrip Racing. Along with the runs of Reutimann and Truex, Waltrip made the race via his qualifying speed and finished a respectable 18th.

Guaranteed starting positions for the first five races of this season go to the top 35 teams based on last season's final car owner points -- for only this year's first five races. That means coming out of the March 21 race at Bristol Motor Speedway, this season's points will be the determining factor.

Two drivers to watch in this "extra-curricular" competition are Scott Speed and driver-owner Robby Gordon (No. 7 Warner Music Nashville Toyota). In the Daytona 500, both helped their chances of staying in the top 35 post-Bristol; Speed was 19th, Gordon 28th.

Two others thought to be headed toward solid seasons are already in trouble, regarding staying in the top 35: Sam Hornish Jr. (No. 77 AAA Dodge) and Marcos Ambrose (No. 47 Armor All Toyota). Hornish finished 37th in the 500, Ambrose 41st.

Slow Start At Daytona No Big Deal To Johnson

In each of the last four season-openers, Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's/ Kobalt Chevrolet) has begun his title defense with a stinker.

Weird, but true. And apparently, not at all season-threatening. Johnson's Daytona 500 clunkers haven't seemed to phase him all that much.

In 2007, Johnson finished 39th in the 500. In 2008, he finished 27th. Last year, he was 31st. Now, once again, he finished outside the top 25, ending Sunday's race 35th.

But Johnson's early-season Rx has been Auto Club Speedway, where he has followed up a bad Daytona 500 with a top-10 finish -- or better.

Johnson has finished in the top five in two of the last three February ACS races, and has been the class of the field at Fontana practically every race since 2007.

In the last six ACS races, Johnson has three wins, a Driver Rating of 134.7, an Average Running Position of 3.4, 619 Laps Led and 347 Fastest Laps Run. He has led at least 31 laps in every race since 2007. (See Johnson's ACS race log below).

Actually, in one race, dominance morphed into perfection.

In the summer race of 2008, Johnson scored a perfect Driver Rating of 150, posting an Average Running Position of 1.2 and leading 228 of the 250 laps.

It was Johnson's first perfect Driver Rating since the Loop Data statistic's inception in 2005. He has since scored another one, at the May Dover race last season.

CHASE PREDICTOR: Statistically, Auto Club Speedway might be a foreshadowing of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Nine drivers in the top 12 of ACS pre-race Driver Rating made the Chase last season. The three who did not: Matt Kenseth (109.7), Kyle Busch (102.9) and Kevin Harvick (89.0).

FANTASY FIX: Pre-race ACS Driver Rating has been spot on when handicapping the event. The last eight ACS race-winners have ranked in the top 10 in pre-race Driver Rating.

Earnhardt's Optimism Tempered, After Runner-Up Run in 500

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy Juice/National Guard Chevrolet) is second in the series standings for the first time since August of 2008. Ok, granted, it's only the first week of the season but work with us here.

This is significant news for the simple reason that Earnhardt is the series' Most Popular Driver seven years running.

That equates to lot of frustrated fans when you consider Earnhardt's recent struggles. Now there is light at the end of the infield tunnel -- at least for the time being.

Earnhardt qualified second on Daytona 500 qualifying day, locking himself into the front row, then went on to finish second.

"It's great for our team to have a good finish anywhere no matter what," Earnhardt said. "I was happy for the finish and it validates the changes and the hard work over the off-season to get better ... I just hope we can keep it up."

Like McMurray, Earnhardt is winless at Auto Club Speedway.

"It's much easier to go there after you run good somewhere else," Earnhardt said. "You know, I look forward to seeing how we are as a team.

"But the 500 is just one race. We got a lot more racing to do. Daytona is not your typical style track that we run on all year. If we can go to Fontana, Vegas, be competitive at any point during those races, it would be a little more validation.

On The Line: McMurray Talks About The Walk Of A Daytona 500 Champion

Q: What has been the best part thus far, about being the Daytona 500 champion?

Jamie McMurray: "It's just really hard to explain like how special all this has been to me. I mean, winning the race was unbelievable, but everything else that goes along with it, whether it's the talk shows or just the media coverage that you get for your team and your sponsor is unbelievable. To listen to the media tell their story of what they were thinking when they were watching the race, it's just been awesome. ...

"I think the reason I got so emotional [in Victory Lane] is because my wife had brought it up a couple of times earlier in the week, like, 'What is it going to mean if you win this race this weekend, if you win the Daytona 500?'

"You know, I don't know that I had ever asked myself that question before. So she asked me that a few times leading up to the race. Then we ran really well in the Budweiser Shootout. You know, we had talked before the race, 'What if we win?' Then all of a sudden it became a reality.

"No driver is going to prepare himself for how he's going to feel when he wins America's biggest stock car race. You get out in Victory Lane, and they stick the microphone in your face, and they ask you the question. I just, you know what, had a million things running through my head at once. I thought about Christy asking me that question. I just broke down. .. It's real, it's actually happening."

Q: A lot of people say there's nothing like that very first win, which you got at Charlotte back in 2002. How would you compare that victory with winning the Daytona 500?

Jamie McMurray: "I said that. I remember for a year afterwards, I said there will never be another victory like your first one. But, the Daytona 500 is different. There's so much buildup leading up to this race for everyone with all of the interviews you do. Everyone, while you're in Daytona, asks you, what it's going to mean if you win the Daytona 500? So you've talked about it all week. Then you win. There's so much that goes along with it.

"It's so much different than winning any other race. You win any other race, you do Victory Lane, then you go home. You do the teleconference on Tuesday or whenever they have the teleconference from either your race shop or from your house. But you win this race and there's just so much that goes along with it, so much attention."

Good Reads: Two New NASCAR Books Should Please Core Fans

Two new books now available that are part of the NASCAR Library Collection should appeal to NASCAR's core fans.

Chicken Soup for the Soul, NASCAR: 101 Stories of Family, Fortitude and Fast Cars, by Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen and Cathy Elliott, is a comprehensive compilation of NASCARrelated stories from industry insiders and loyal fans.

The Weekend Starts On Wednesday: True Stories Of Remarkable NASCAR Fans, by Andrew Giangola, is all about the fans.

Giangola, the director of business communications for NASCAR, will be at Auto Club Speedway this weekend for a special autograph signing. He'll be joined Sunday morning (9 a.m.) at IMPULSE at ACS (the speedway gift shop) by two devoted NASCAR fans who are season ticket holders at the track -- Tava Miyata, who was put into a race car by her dad, the surfer Wayne Miyata, when she was two years old, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. "super fan" Barbie Robbins, who has been known to don a nurse's outfit when Earnhardt wrecks.

Three-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Darrell Waltrip wrote the foreword for the Chicken Soup book.

"One thing pops out at me all the way through these stories," Waltrip said. "All these people have been influenced by some experience related to NASCAR. And I believe the people who read the stories shared in this book will be influenced in some way, too."

Cathy Elliott, the co-compiler of the book, is the former public relations director at Darlington Raceway and has a weekly column on NASCARMedia. com, NASCAR's media-only Web site.

Up Next: The Shelby American @ Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota) will be the defending race champion next week (Sunday, Feb. 28), when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series goes to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the "Shelby American," a 267-lap, 400.5-mile race.

That win last year was a big one for Busch, since Las Vegas is his hometown. It was the first of his four 2009 victories.

The race will be shown on FOX. Pre-race show starts at 2 (ET), with p.m. the race at 3 p.m.

Fast Facts

The Race: Auto Club 500
The Place: Auto Club Speedway, Fontana, Calif. (2-mile oval)

The Date: Sunday, Feb. 21
The Time: 3 p.m. (ET)

Race Distance: 500 miles/250 laps

TV: FOX , 2 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN and Sirius NASCAR Radio Channel 128. (Local: KFRG-FM, KVFG-FM, KXFG-FM.)

2009 Polesitter: Brian Vickers
2009 Winner: Matt Kenseth

Pre-race day schedule (all times local):
Friday—Practice, 12-1:30 p.m. Qualifying, 3:40.
Saturday—Practice, 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and 12:45-1:50.

-source: nascar

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About this article
Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Darrell Waltrip , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Michael Waltrip , Robby Gordon , Kurt Busch , Jimmie Johnson , Jamie McMurray , Kevin Buckler , Richard Petty , Marcos Ambrose , Scott Speed , David Reutimann , Martin Truex Jr. , Brian Vickers , Felix Sabates , Sam Hornish Jr. , Kyle Busch
Teams Chip Ganassi Racing , Michael Waltrip Racing