INDIANAPOLIS — Jamie McMurray followed teammate Juan Pablo Montoya around and around historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway, almost resigned to settling for a second-place finish.
McMurray had already won one big race this year and as a firm believer in fate, he figured Sunday’s Brickyard 400 was Montoya’s chance to celebrate.
Only it didn’t play out that way.
Not even close.
Montoya suffered a heartbreaking defeat for the second consecutive year at Indy, opening the door for McMurray to become just the third driver in NASCAR history to win the Brickyard 400 and Daytona 500 in the same year.
“I really believe that this was Juan’s weekend,” a sympathetic McMurray said. “I’m looking with 15 or 20 laps to go and Juan is leading — not that I was content — but, if this is the way it’s supposed to be, then that’s just the way it is.”
The win was huge for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, which this time last year was struggling to prove the team was stable and capable of competing for wins. On Sunday, Chip Ganassi became the first team owner to win the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season.
“When Juan was leading and I was in second, I am a big believer in fate, and I thought this was just the way it is meant to be,” McMurray said. “I won the 500, Dario (Franchitti) won the Indy 500 and Juan is gonna win this race. I really thought it was his day.”
It was pit strategy that sunk Montoya, who started from the pole and led 86 of the 160 laps only to finish 32nd.
A late caution for debris sent the field to pit road with Montoya as the leader, and crew chief Brian Pattie called for a four-tire stop. McMurray crew chief Kevin “Bono” Manion went the opposite direction, settling for a two-tire stop in what Ganassi characterized as a “split strategy” that would ensure the organization would benefit from one of the two calls.
“The only reason we could do that is because we knew (Montoya) was going for four,” Ganassi said.
“As a team, we had sort of both strategies covered there, I guess.”
As six cars, led by McMurray, beat Montoya off pit road, he immediately questioned the decision. The four tires put him in seventh on the restart with 18 laps to go, and he vented over his radio how difficult it was to pass in traffic.
Trying hard to drive back to the front, he lost control of his Chevrolet and crashed hard into the wall before bouncing into Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s car. Montoya drove his battered car directly to the garage and did not comment as he left the track.
“We had a rough day. Great car and great team effort. Nice to see the 1 car win. I know it means a lot for Chip,” he later posted on his Twitter page.
A year ago, he led 116 laps before a late speeding penalty cost him the victory.
Pattie took the blame for Sunday’s failure, “bad call. Crew chief error. We should have taken two tires,” and the rest of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing teetered along the fine line of celebrating for McMurray while sympathizing with Montoya.
“I know he’s mad,” Ganassi said of Montoya. “I’m sure he’s mad. But he’s over it. It’s racing. This is what he does for a living.”
It’s for sure a tough one to swallow, though, particularly with how poorly the year has gone for Montoya. He made the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship last season, but has been plagued by horrible luck this year and sits a distant 22nd in the current standings.
So the No. 42 team had its sights set on Indy, where the former Indianapolis 500 winner would get his shot at redemption.
Instead, it was McMurray in Victory Lane, where he joined Jimmie Johnson (2006) and Dale Jarrett (1996) as the only drivers to win both the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 in the same season.