In rare cases, you can go home again. And as with the case of Jamie McMurray, sometimes you have to leave home before you can realize that you want to go back.
McMurray's Daytona 500 victory on Sunday is the most obvious manifestation of his reunion with car owner Chip Ganassi. Not so obvious are the years of self-discovery that propelled McMurray back to his former boss and helped make the breakthrough win possible.
McMurray said Friday that it's unbelievable how peers and fans have treated him since winning NASCAR's biggest race. The 33-year-old says the goal now is to "get focused" and not let the off-track congratulations get in the way of this week's race in California.
His hectic week is typical of a Daytona 500 winner but might have been accentuated because McMurray is one of the most relentlessly friendly drivers in the Sprint Cup garage. He wants to be liked.
But discontent with the direction of Chip Ganassi Racing caused him to look elsewhere in 2005 and ultimately to sign a three-year deal with Roush Racing, starting in 2006.
Of course, there was also the money.
After turning down a succession of suitors, McMurray accepted a then-unheard-of annual salary of $4 million from Jack Roush. That and the attention he received were seductive.
"Instead of just taking what I had and really growing it, I got overwhelmed with everything that was being thrown at me, and the money—and there's just so much that goes along with that," McMurray said last week before winning the 500. ". … It's the same thing, I think, for football players and every other professional athlete. You have people throwing money at you."
Along with the move to Roush (which since has changed its name to Roush Fenway after Boston Red Sox owner John Henry bought 50 percent of the team) came culture shock. The vastness of the organization, which occupies a campus as opposed to a single shop, was overwhelming.
"It's very hard to go around and meet everybody," McMurray said. "You know, I want to be friends with everybody. I want to know everybody, and I had that relationship at Ganassi, so when I went to Roush, I wanted to be able to keep that—and you just can't."
If establishing relationships proved more difficult, so was winning. With Ganassi and partner Felix Sabates, McMurray won at Charlotte in 2002 in his second Cup start, subbing for injured Sterling Marlin. But his second win didn't come until 2007, and his third was Nov. 1 of last season at Talladega.
But by then, he knew he was the odd-man out in a NASCAR-mandated reduction from five teams to four at Roush Fenway Racing.
Ganassi — whose team is now Earnhardt Ganassi after a merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc. — welcomed McMurray back to a team that had made the Chase in 2009 with open-wheel star Juan Pablo Montoya. On his return, McMurray galvanized his No. 1 Chevrolet team. He and crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion clicked as soon as they talked for the first time.
"People talk about the cars and the engines, but what is a very powerful thing in sports — in all sports — is a team," Ganassi said after Monday's traditional champion's breakfast for the Daytona 500 winner. "You just can't get a bunch of people and throw them together. That's the fun thing about having Jamie come back. We knew he was a team player."
McMurray, though he says he doesn't regret his time at Roush Fenway, likes how he has blended back in upon his return to Ganassi:
"It certainly has been easy going back (to EGR). In going to Roush, everybody already kind of had their favorite guy. There were guys who liked Greg (Biffle), and there were guys who liked Carl (Edwards), and you get there, and it's like 'Gosh, I don't really know if I fit in right now.'
"Going back to Ganassi, you just immediately feel like you fit in."