Affable and with a smile seemingly permanently affixed to his face, Jamie McMurray has a deserved reputation as one of the nicest guys in the NASCAR garage. And his driving style reflects his personality: smooth, non-assertive and someone who rarely, if ever, becomes embroiled in the antics that so many become immersed in.
But wave a $1 million prize in front of McMurray and he becomes transformed. Much like he did Saturday night in winning the All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Lined up on the front row to the outside of Carl Edwards on the restart for the final 10-lap shootout, McMurray's goal was simple: Secure the lead by any means possible. A strategy especially imperative on a night when clean air meant everything.
Edwards got the jump and initially cleared McMurray, who then gamely fought back pulling alongside Edwards. The combatants made contact on a couple of occasions, but neither crossed a line.
"I think the mentality going into that last segment is just all or nothing, and that was my thought process," McMurray said. "I am like, ‘I don't really care if we wreck, I don't care what happens, I'm racing for a million dollars.'"
The final tussle between McMurray and Edwards was symbolic of what had transpired throughout the 30th All-Star Race, where hard racing was the norm and not the exception like so often in recent years.
McMurray (1) and Edwards duel Sunday in Charlotte (Photo: Sam Sharpe)
Although the 2014 version of the All-Star Race lacked a signature defining moment (think Dale Earnhardt's "pass in the grass") there were moments of inspiration. That increase in drama can be credited to the idea of using a driver's average finish in the first four segments to set the running order prior to the mandatory pit stop before the fifth and deciding heat.
When introduced last year, the formula seemed to confuse competitors and fans alike. (Not at all helped by an incorrect tabulation Fox showed placing eventual winner Jimmie Johnson lined up incorrectly.) But with a better understanding of how significant each position actually was is in determining their eventual fate, drivers were more aggressive while crew chiefs gambled on varying strategies to grab track position.
If there was a common theme Saturday it's being content to reach the final segment without incident is no longer sensible. Lay back too much and you're in a disadvantageous spot when the order is reshuffled for the final 10-lap dash. It's not happenstance the top five finishers -- McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Edwards -- all restarted sixth or better.
Ever mindful of the consequences if he didn't charge to the front, Kyle Busch attributed the format as the reason for his Lap 25 wreck where he tried to dart around Clint Bowyer and older brother Kurt.
NASCAR All-Star Race
NASCAR All-Star Race
The brazen attempt to go three-wide resulted in Busch, the winner of the opening segment, careening into the path of Joey Logano.
"You're trying to race hard and protect that average finish that you're supposed to have for the last segment and trying to pass as many cars as you can and I was going to have two right there getting into Turn 3," Busch said. "Those are the opportunities you have to take in the All-Star."
The spectacular wreck wasn't the only of the evening. Another involved Jeff Gordon who, because of a mechanical failure, veered up the track collecting Martin Truex Jr. and Greg Biffle in his wake. Trouble also befell segment two and three winner Kasey Kahne, who tagged the wall and crippled his potentially winning Chevrolet.
"It's intense," Gordon said of the racing. "It's awesome. It's nice to see some guys switching up their strategies. That's what making the racing so good because they realize how important it is to get track position and some of them are able to maintain it."
And no one maintained track position better than McMurray, who in addition to his nice guy persona, also has a reputation for shining in NASCAR's biggest races. His résumé now includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, as well as the All-Star Race and its $1 million payday.
"I can't explain how unbelievable that is to hold a check up for that much money," McMurray said."It's crazy. I can't even make sense of what's going on right now. It's awesome. Really it's ultimately what a race car driver wakes up every single day to be put in that position."
A position which when found in can apparently turn even the nicest of guys into an unyielding competitor.