HAMPTON, Ga. -- Jamie McMurray has been there.
The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver knows what it's like to be a phenom bursting onto the NASCAR scene -- he was just that a decade ago, when he won in only his second career start in the sport's premier series. That background makes McMurray well-suited to act as teammate and mentor to Kyle Larson, who will take over EGR's other Sprint Cup Series car beginning next year.
Larson will succeed Juan Pablo Montoya, whose contract at EGR was not renewed. McMurray recently signed an extension, and will work beginning next season with a 21-year-old who has 29 national-series starts -- none yet at the Sprint Cup level -- entering this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
McMurray knows something about making that kind of leap. He was a 26-year-old Nationwide Series driver for Clarence Brewer's former team when Cup championship leader Sterling Marlin injured his neck in a crash and had to step out of Ganassi's No. 40 car in the fall of 2002. Ganassi called on McMurray, who stunned the racing world by winning at Charlotte in his second start.
Personally and professionally, it's been quite a journey in the years since. McMurray left Ganassi's team for Roush Fenway before returning to the rebranded EGR outfit for the 2010 campaign. He's won five more times since that night in Charlotte, including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard. And he's now a married 37-year-old father of two children.
When it comes to competition, McMurray doesn't think Larson will need much help. When it comes to everything else involved in making the transition from Nationwide to Sprint Cup, he's ready and willing to lend advice.
"As a driver, he has that part. We might go to certain tracks that he would ask you stuff about. But I think more than anything where I can help Kyle is everything else that comes along with running Cup versus Nationwide -- the amount of people, the sponsorship commitments, the lifestyle change. There's a lot that goes with that that I don't know if people recognize," McMurray said.
"I feel like my lifestyle would be a really good example for Kyle to see, certainly my life from when I started Cup to now. It's a lot different with kids and being married. But I've lived all of that, and I've learned from things I did. I think I would be really good in guiding Kyle in the right direction."
Direction is one reason McMurray is staying at EGR. Ganassi has revamped his organization in recent years, replacing some members of the executive team, in an effort to improve a program that bottomed out with points finishes in the 20s for both cars in 2011 and 2012. Progress has been slow in coming, but McMurray -- currently 16th in the Sprint Cup standings -- has seen enough to make him want to stay on board.
"I really enjoy my relationship with Chip, and with the whole organization," McMurray said. "I really like this team, and I feel like it's just going to continue to get better. I feel like this new (Generation-6) car has been better for our organization, I feel like the Hendrick engines have been better. Chip's made every commitment to get our team better, and I'm 100 percent behind him."
Even Montoya's team has shown improvement in recent weeks, although not enough for him to remain with the organization following this season. The Colombian still lingers 22nd in points. Ganassi believes things are on the upswing, and the team has advanced to the point where it can support a young driver like Larson for next season.
"I think we've made some steps since the inception of our team. Some were solid steps. Looking back, some were not so solid," the car owner said. "But it's a building process. I think we made a big step this past year. Our cars are a lot better. They seem to run at the front a lot more. You know, we led some races. We've been running at the front a lot. Having the right drivers certainly doesn't hurt. Are we there yet? Do I think I'm there yet? You're never there. You're never there. Until we can win on a consistent basis and win championships consistently, we're not there, you know."
From an on-track standpoint, McMurray is looking forward to the chance to work with Larson, whom he said "has no bad habits yet." He and Montoya have worked together for so long, that they know one another's tendencies and driving styles from memory. Next season brings the opportunity to compare himself against someone different.
"At Roush, I had five teammates. So definitely you have good and bad ones along the way, and there are guys you think are better teammates to you than others," McMurray said. "And I'm going to try my hardest to be a really good teammate to Kyle, and share as much as you can, and you hope the same comes in return."
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