Does absence make the championship grow fonder?
For the second time in as many weeks, Victory Lane in NASCAR’s biggest series was missing any of the 13 participants in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
Instead, it served as a refuge for yet another driver seeking to endless a winless streak of a year or longer.
Jamie McMurray snapped a 108-race winless streak with his victory under caution in Sunday’s Camping World 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.
McMurray took the white flag – signifying the start of the final lap – as the race leader and his win was assured over Dale Earnhardt Jr. when a caution was displayed as Austin Dillon’s No. 14 Chevrolet got airborne on the backstretch.
Dillon was not hurt in the crash.
McMurray became the eighth driver this season to end a winless streak of 37 or more races and his stretched nearly three years. McMurray’s most recent victory came in October 2010 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I don’t know how the last lap would have played out because I could see (Earnhardt) trying to set me up and trying to figure out where he could get a run on me,” said McMurray, who earned his seventh career win. Four of McMurrray’s victories have come on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega.
“Honestly, I wanted to see it end under green but at the same time, I said if there was a caution I would be okay with that, too,” he said.
The win also offered McMurray the first opportunity to share a Victory Lane experience with his 3-year-old son, Carter, who tried to offer his own commentary to ESPN reporter Dr. Jerry Punch during the post-race celebration.
McMurray’s wife, Christy, and infant daughter, Hazel, also joined the celebration.
“I mean, that’s top two or three moments of my life, to get to experience that with them,” he said.
McMurray also believes the victory gives his Earnhardt Ganassi Racing team a much-needed momentum boost.
“I mean winning is not just about me, it’s about everybody within our whole group,” he said. “You know, probably more so the No. 1 (team) guys because they’re the ones that are in Victory Lane. But it's so cool to see their faces in Victory Lane and know that when we go to Martinsville (next weekend), you have confidence, everybody does.”
McMurray’s victory was perhaps most surprising in how it unfolded.
Throughout Sunday’s race, drivers were able to drive from the back to the front of the field with relative ease and the race ended with 52 lead changes among 20 drivers.
But once McMurray moved into the lead with 15 to go, the willingness of the drivers at the front of the field to risk moving out of line dropped dramatically.
Jeff Gordon called it “shocking.”
“I mean it’s smart for those guys up front to do that because it elminates a lot of cars out of the running for the win,” he said. “But I’ve never seen guys have that much patience here in my life.”
Earnhardt was planning to make a move for the lead on the final lap, likely with the help of Dillon, who was running behind him. The wreck and subsequent caution brought a quick end to Earnhardt’s plan.
“We didn't get an opportunity to see what would have materialized. It wasn't the best run in the world. It wasn't what I dreamed it would be, all those last few laps,” Earnhardt said.
“But it was a good enough run I think to get up to his quarter panel and get beside him, and then we would have found out who our friends were at that point.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ended up finishing a career-best third, Paul Menard was fourth and Kyle Busch was fifth.
Jimmie Johnson, who led the most laps in the race, ended up 13th and combined with Matt Kenseth’s 20th-place finish, took over the series points lead. With four races left this season, Johnson leads Kenseth by four points.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are tied for third, both 26 points behind Johnson.
“I’m happy to have the points lead and we went through a lot of work to get there,” Johnson said.