How an unanswered phone call changed a driver’s life

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CONCORD, N.C. – Sometimes the most memorable moments happen in the most mundane places.

Although Jamie McMurray won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in 2010 and shocked many by winning at Charlotte in 2002 in his second career series start, one of his most memorable moments came well away from a track.

It was the day he found out that Chip Ganassi and Felix Sabates wanted him to drive their cars in what was then the Winston Cup Series.

“I was in a grocery store in Huntersville (N.C.),’’ McMurray told NASCAR Talk. “I was literally pushing a (shopping cart) and I got a phone call from my agent.’’

Yet McMurray didn’t answer the call. Didn’t feel like taking it.

It wasn’t long, though, until he checked the message left.

“Unless someone has died … you need to call me,’’ McMurray recalled his agent’s message.

After returning the call and finding out the news, McMurray said, “I literally left my buggy in there, I went home and I called my mom and dad and said you won’t believe the phone call I just got.

“I remember that as clear as day.’’

When the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Charlotte – as it will for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 – McMurray’s name often gets mentioned. He won last year’s Sprint All-Star race there and the fall race in 2010. Yet, it is the 2002 fall race he won that is most memorable for many. Filling in for an injured Sterling Marlin, McMurray guided the car to a victory. It was his first win in a national NASCAR series.

Specifics of that race, though, are cloudy, to McMurray.

“I don’t remember a tremendous amount about anything that happened that long ago,’’ he said. “There’s been so much that has happened since.’’

He’s married, has two children and continues to race in Cup. Sunday marks his 450th career series race. McMurray starts 22nd.

He admits he recalls more about that Charlotte win in 2002 when he sees the highlights, which often are played at this time and in October. Watching the end of that race also gave him a different perspective than he had that day.

“I thought I won by quite a bit,’’ McMurray said. “I saw a replay and the last five laps Bobby Labonte was right behind me. I don’t remember that. I kind of thought I won by a bigger margin than I did.’’

McMurray does not forget the struggles on his way to NASCAR’s top series. He remembers the rides, the questions about sponsorship and what might happen. Those moments are seared into his memory and make him think about what if his 4-year-old son, Carter, wants to become a racer.

“I don’t know that I want him to live the emotional roller coaster that goes along with doing this,’’ McMurray said. “I think that I have as good work ethic as anyone. When it comes time to put your head down and do your work I’m really good at that. I pride myself on getting up early and trying to get more done than anybody can. Not everyone has that. I don’t expect my kid to have that.

“I know this is really hard and I’ve seen a lot of parents try to get their kids to this level. Some of the kids don’t want to do it and the parents push them. Then I look at David Gilliland’s’ kid (Todd) who won the ARCA race the other day and good for him. I know David has worked really hard on that. What an amazing moment for him to get to experience that with his kid. It’s really cool to see that pay off.’’

For now, McMurray, who is eighth in the points entering Sunday’s race, wants to let his son enjoy whatever he wants to do. There is one thing Carter will have to learn, though.

“This is funny,’’ McMurray says with a chuckle. “Carter thought Martinsville was the farthest track from home because we drove there and it took two and a half hours and we can fly to Texas in two hours. He doesn’t get the perspective.’’

McMurray does. Thirteen years in Cup have taught him that.