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Throwback Thursday Theater – McMurray Goes from Relief Driver to Cup Winner

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

As the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Charlotte Motor Speedway for Saturday’s running of the Bank of America 500, the time has come once again to take a look back at a race from Charlotte’s past in this week’s edition of “Throwback Thursday Theater”. In this week’s edition, we will focus on the 2002 UAW GM Quality 500 – a race that saw a relative unknown score his first Cup Series win in just his second start.

After leading the points for the majority of the 2002 season, Sterling Marlin headed to Kansas having lost the points lead as he sat fifth in points and was looking to get back into championship contention. However, a crash during the Protection One 400 saw Marlin impact the backstretch wall hard and in turn Marlin suffered a broken vertebrae in his neck that would leave him sidelined for the remainder of the season.

Marlin’s replacement for the remainder of the season, Jamie McMurray, was a relative unknown as he was driving in the Busch Series in 2002 for BrewCo Motorsports and had just run one full-time season and one part-time season in the Busch Series prior to that season.

With qualifying rained out, the young rookie had the advantage of starting fifth due to the team’s fifth place standing in the owner’s points.

Through the first 200 laps of the event, a handful of drivers (Tony Stewart, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, and Bobby Labonte) had led the majority of the event, but on lap 212, McMurray made his presence known as he passed the 2000 Cup Series champion to assume the top spot in the field.

The two drivers would swap the lead back and forth over the next 20 laps until a multi-car crash broke out on lap 231 when Todd Bodine caught the wet grass on the frontstretch and slid up into Ward Burton and Kyle Petty. From there, the melee ensued and by the time the smoke cleared, a total of 10 cars were involved.

McMurray had re-assumed the lead just prior to the crash and for the remainder of the evening looked to be the car to beat.

Only losing the lead during the final round of green flag pit stops, McMurray led 87 of the final 106 laps with Labonte not far behind. Despite having fresher tires than McMurray at the end of the race, having made his final pit stop nine laps earlier than McMurray, Labonte was unable to take over the lead again and followed McMurray to the line by a .350 second margin.

“I don’t believe it. This is huge. You know, this is a tough opportunity in a really hard situation with Sterling getting hurt and everything; he’s been great to me having to sit out, but what an opportunity with Chip and Felix. Coors Light and Havoline, what an opportunity they gave me. Everyone asks if I’m nervous, I’m freaking nervous! I promise you guys, I’m nervous,” McMurray said.

“This is my worst race track and you wouldn’t believe that. I’ll tell you what, Lorin Ranier, my spotter and I learned a lot on my Busch team. We had a great car yesterday, really thought we could run top-three yesterday before we broke a motor, really unfortunate, but we learned a lot about the race track. Holy cow! Go buy some Coors Light!”

At the time, McMurray’s win had set the record for the driver with the least amount of Cup Series starts to win his first race at two starts. The mark was eclipsed in 2011, when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 in his very first Cup Series start.

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.

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