By David Caraviello, NASCAR.COM
February 25, 2010
The oddest thing about Jamie McMurray’s return to Chip Ganassi’s race team wasn’t his reunion with a car owner he had split with five years earlier. They had parted on good terms, with Ganassi telling the driver that he couldn’t match what Roush Fenway was offering him, and to take advantage of the opportunity. McMurray would send his old boss occasional text messages, congratulating him on a victory in an IndyCar event or the 24-hour Daytona sports-car race.
«I kept that friendship,» McMurray said. «You just never know.»
So no, it wasn’t strange at all that a driver and a car owner with a mutual affinity for one another would one day reunite. The oddity had to be sitting up on a stage and being introduced next to his new teammate at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing — Juan Montoya. Because the last time the two drivers had been that close in proximity, one was putting the other into the wall.
«Probably in Juan’s case, it’s a good thing Ganassi hired me,» McMurray joked, «because the Chase would have been hell.»
It would have been difficult to imagine McMurray and Montoya as peaceful teammates a little more than a year ago, after the most recent spring race at Bristol Motor Speedway. Montoya wanted to advance a position on the half-mile race track, and he thought McMurray was holding him up. On Lap 123, they bumped. Then Montoya dropped behind McMurray, applied a gentle love tap to the left-rear bumper of the No. 26 car, and spun his future teammate into the wall.
Hard feelings? You bet. They joke about it now, after the strange confluence of events that brought them together. McMurray, who’s watched Formula One racing on television for years, said he was one of the first NASCAR regulars to introduce himself to Montoya when he heard the Colombian was making the move to stock cars. He wanted to offer whatever help he could, and hear stories about the F1 lifestyle. They had even struck up something approaching a friendship — until that Sunday afternoon at Bristol.
«When you’re not teammates with somebody, and you get wrecked, you’re pissed,» McMurray said with a wry smile. «Especially at a place like Bristol, that just brings out the worst in everybody. And since they’ve changed the race track its made it even worse, because literally the leader can catch you, and if you get on the top side, he can’t pass you. You can hold him up. I did that to Juan, and I got wrecked.»
Montoya understands. He was in the top 10 at the time, and would go on to finish ninth. For him, it was one of those situations where he knew he had a fast car, and he knew he might have an opportunity to win the race. He didn’t want anything to disrupt that, especially on a track like Bristol that had given him fits in the past.
«He was really pissed about it, but I was OK,» Montoya recalled. «It’s understandable for him. They were having a rough year, and he was running well. We were like sixth or seventh or something like that, and I had a really fast race car. It was frustrating because he wasn’t giving me a lot of room. But I’m sure if you asked him, it was the other way around.»
The grudges didn’t last very long. At a tire test at Daytona last November, McMurray approached Montoya in the lobby of a hotel and broached the idea of the two becoming teammates. He was already excited about seeing what kind of setups Montoya was using, given that the former F1 driver was in the midst of his first Chase appearance. It was a nice change for McMurray, who admits to sometimes feeling «overwhelmed» by the overload of information flying around the then-five teams at Roush, his former home.
«I know for years, especially when Hendrick was the first one to have four cars, or Roush, we thought, ‘Oh, it would be great to have all that,« said McMurray, who added that he knew late last season he would be the odd man out at Roush, which had to contract from five to four teams for this season. «But sometimes it’s not better to have all that information.»
The change has clearly benefitted McMurray, who won the Daytona 500 and stands fourth in points entering Sunday’s race at Las Vegas. Montoya had a strong Daytona, too, and led last Sunday’s race in Southern California before his engine let go. As for that one-time feud between the two? It’s long been forgotten.
«We race every single weekend,» McMurray said, «and it takes about two more weeks before somebody else makes you mad.»