CONCORD, N.C. - Jamie McMurray was so nervous about racing a Winston Cup car Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway that he had trouble sleeping for a few nights.
"I would find myself getting up at 4 a.m. I was worried. I told my girlfriend, `I don't want to go to Charlotte, I'm terrible there,' " McMurray said Sunday after stunning everyone, including himself, by winning the UAW-GM 500 in only his second Cup race in NASCAR's top series.
It was the second shock for the 26-year-old driver in the last two weeks.
The first came when team owner Chip Ganassi told him he would replace injured Sterling Marlin for the last seven races.
McMurray was scheduled to move up from the Busch Series next year, but was pressed into service early by Ganassi and team co-owner Felix Sabates.
That was after Marlin - who led the points much of the season and was still in the tight championship battle - was sidelined two weeks ago by a fractured vertebra from a crash in Kansas City.
McMurray was winless in a season and a half of racing NASCAR trucks and nearly two full seasons in the Busch Series. His best finish came last month in Richmond, when he finished second.
He already knew he had a ride with the Ganassi-Sabates team for next year when he inquired about Marlin's ride during a visit to the team's shop the Tuesday after the veteran was injured.
"They told me, `Well, Sterling is out and you are one of the guys we are considering to replace him."'
McMurray said he was stunned and remained silent. When he left the shop, he worried that the team would pass him over because of his reaction. He tried to call Ganassi, but got his voice mail.
Ganassi called back a few minutes later and Jamie said, "I don't think I seemed interested to the guys, and I really am. I'd love to be considered, etc.,' and Chip said, `We've already hired a driver.'
The dejected McMurray asked who it was and Ganassi answered: "Jamie McMurray."
So far, so good.
In his debut a week before his big win, McMurray drove to a 26th-place finish in Talladega. Crew chief Lee McCall said it would likely have been a top 10 "if I hadn't run him out of fuel."
McMurray wasn't thinking about that Sunday.
"They took a chance on me," McMurray said. "I hadn't won in trucks or Busch. They put me in first-class equipment and I made the most of it tonight."
McMurray gave up the lead when he made his final pit stop on lap 285. He eventually went back on top after all the other leaders made their green-flag stops.
"With 100 laps to go, I didn't know if we were going to win," McMurray said. "I struggled getting on pit road. I really lost a lot of time there. I didn't want to make a mistake … and lose a lap or something, so I gave up a little bit there."
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There were no mistakes by the crew or the driver this time. McMurray was strong from start to finish.
After taking the lead for the final time on lap 304 of the 334-lap event, McMurray appeared on the way to an easy win. A slight bobble four laps from the end allowed 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte to move his Pontiac nearly up to the rear bumper of McMurray's No. 40 Dodge Intrepid.
The inexperienced McMurray was up to the job, though, holding off Labonte and actually pulling away on the final lap to win by 0.35 seconds - about five car-lengths.
"I don't believe it," McMurray said. "This was a really hard situation with Sterling being hurt, but what an opportunity."
Labonte said, "His little old Dodge was pretty fast. I tried everything I could think of, but it wasn't enough."
Series leader Tony Stewart, Labonte's teammate, finished third and padded his points lead in the race that ended under the lights because of a three-hour delay of the start due to rain.
Much to McCall's chagrin, McMurray started celebrating on the backstretch of the last lap, whooping and hollering into the radio.
"I told him to keep his mind on his business, but I don't know if he was listening," McCall said.
After taking the checkered flag, McMurray did a burnout in which the silver and red car nearly disappeared in a billowing white cloud of smoke as his crew danced and hugged in the infield grass and the crowd of about 140,000 roared.
In victory circle, McMurray talked to Marlin by phone.
Marlin joked, "That's way too soon," then added, "I knew Jamie was going to be a good driver for us."
McMurray led four times for a race-high total of 96 laps as he broke Kevin Harvick's year-old record as the quickest winner in NASCAR's modern era. Harvick won in his third race after replacing the late Dale Earnhardt in the second race of 2001.
The starting lineup was determined by car owner points after qualifying was rained out. That put McMurray in fifth place. He stayed near or at the front throughout the race.
Jeff Gordon, struggling to remain in the points chase, finished fourth, followed by Rusty Wallace, rookie Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Burton and rookie Ryan Newman. All but Burton are part of the closest points race in NASCAR history.
Johnson moved to second, 97 points behind with five races remaining. Mark Martin, who was second, trailing Stewart by 72 points, struggled late in the race with an engine problem and wound up a lap down in 16th. He fell to third, 122 points back, followed by Newman (165 behind), Wallace (192) and Gordon (211).
When the race finally started at 3:45 p.m., the field followed the pace car around for five more laps before green-flag racing began. The infield grass remained soaked and eventually helped ignite a 10-car crash.
The big wreck the drivers avoided a week earlier at dangerous Talladega came here on lap 230. Todd Bodine, Ward Burton and Jeff Green, back in the pack, were racing three-wide onto the frontstretch. Bodine got his left-side tires in the soaked grass, slid up the banking into Burton, who in turn hit Green.
There were no injuries.