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Five things we learned at Charlotte

It's rare for a non-Chaser to spoil the party this time of year. Not only have the "postseason" participants won 29 of the last 31 races heading into Sunday, the two exceptions occurred at the equivalent of NASCAR Russian Roulette: Talladega. Put the big guns against the little guys at virtually every track on the circuit during this stretch, and the top-12 men in points prove exactly why they've gotten there over the other 31 filling out the field each week.

But on this night, it was no ordinary race for a man whose season has been rather extraordinary. Find out why Jamie McMurray was destined to take this one, his third win the charm on a phenomenal comeback year as we examine Five Things to take away from Charlotte: 1) For Jamie McMurray, his career has come full circle.

It was eight years ago this week when a wide-eyed, blond-haired rookie came to NASCAR's hometown mecca tagged with a daunting assignment: filling in for Sterling Marlin in Cup. Chip Ganassi tagged the then-Busch Series driver for Charlotte after Marlin suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks earlier in Kansas, turning his No. 40 team from charging after a championship to simply going through the motions and finishing out the year. Qualifying fifth, he was all but overlooked heading into the race, as anything more than a top-10 finish was considered unrealistic. A win? Seemingly impossible...

Or not. Pacing the field for the last 30 laps that night, McMurray became the first Cup Series driver in history to win in just his second career start. The world of NASCAR had a fresh new talent, armed with a 10 out of 10 girlfriend (Cielo Garcia), a new ride with Ganassi for 2003 and a record that no one can likely ever break.

"Chip and Felix [Sabates] took a chance on a guy living his dream," he said that night. "I'm going to cry."

Even then, a man never afraid to get in touch with his feminine side was weeping tears of joy at an opportunity he never expected.

Fast forwarding to 2010, now 34-year-old McMurray has seen his career come full circle, sitting in Charlotte's Victory Lane a second time with the world his oyster. Gone is the girlfriend, that relationship ended along with a first-time stint with Ganassi that evolved into an unsuccessful, four-year fling with another ex that never panned out: Roush Fenway Racing. The puzzle pieces of racing success just never fit over in Ford's number one camp, causing McMurray's stock to fall to near-unemployment status before his old employer came calling late last fall. In between was a wedding, some serious sponsorship negotiations, and newfound hope he'd be able to once again become the sport's rising star, filled with the potential he never fully pulled together after that special October night.

"I had a tough year last year; I found out the power of prayer," said this year's well-documented Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, and now Fall Charlotte success story who's made the best of his second chance. "What that can do for you. When you get to Victory Lane and you get to experience this, it just makes you a believer."

And now, everyone involved in NASCAR Nation believes once again this man could reach the pinnacle of Cup competition. Anything less than a top-5 point finish next season would be considered a disappointment for this group now building some long-term goals towards competing for a Chase bid themselves.

"I talked to Chip [Ganassi] earlier today and we were discussing sponsorship and where this organization was a year ago, and how far we've come," he said. "It's incredible."

It's also a story no one would have believed this time last year -- just like his first win at the speedway. The more things change...

2) Jimmie Johnson pulled off his greatest Chase caper yet ... BUT ...

The more they stay the same. For a brief moment, the Chase for the championship challengers were shell-shocked by a sight they rarely see: Johnson spinning his Lowe's Chevy all by himself. After dropping back in the pack from his 10th starting spot, a flat tire looped him off of Turn 2 in a Lap 35 wreck that could have reshaped this title race. Just one ill-timed hit from another driver, one unlucky jerk of the wheel and that car would be in the garage, totaled along with his tag of invincibility.

But they say in racing, you make your own luck, created by the calm, unrelenting sense of focus that kept the reigning four-time champ away from other cars and right in line to snag a fifth.

"At that point, I had been there before," he explained of the spin. "I hit that inside wall in the spring. Tried a few things with the steering wheel and pushing the clutch in, and on and off the brake, and had the momentum change and swing back from the inside wall and didn't hit it, fortunately."

It was all uphill from there, making repairs and dropping down to 37th before ripping through the field with a car whose handling just took off like on a rail. Staying out for track position under a yellow flag just before the 200-mile mark, the No. 48 jumped into the top-5 and would never fall back the rest of the night, fluctuating between the lead and fifth spot before settling for a shocking third.

"Scared me straight," he said of the 500-mile roller coaster, admitting a sense of vulnerability after an incident he hasn't had in the playoffs since '06. "I think tonight helps our team build confidence, and we'll hopefully have this fight in us through the rest of the season."

As for his two challengers, well, they must be running scared. Both Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick saw top-10 finishes wasted again, falling 41 and 77 points back of Johnson, respectively, with just five races left. But this Sunday at Martinsville is still an outstanding chance for either one to gain ground. Hamlin won there in the spring, while Harvick won the pole and has built much of his all-time reputation around half-mile bullrings. Let's not forget, Hamlin outpointed Johnson by 50 over the final five races last season; that would give him this year's title by nine points.

So it's certainly not over 'till it's over. Just one thing's for sure at this point: to beat the No. 48, you've got to put up one heck of a fight.

3) Two drivers with six combined championships won't be running for a seventh this year.

One was last week's winner, the other the polesitter for Saturday night's race in which both have emerged victorious in seasons past. Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, hairs graying at 39 years of age, were looking to this race to jumpstart long dormant championship magic, thrusting themselves right in Jimmie Johnson's rear-view mirror just in time to cause trouble for an unpredictable Chase second half.

But it turns out the rumors of a Stewart-Gordon comeback were greatly exaggerated. Tony the Tiger twisted his ankle early, sustaining damage in teammate Ryan Newman's wreck, then endured getting blocked out of his stall, consistent handling issues, and driving a car painted like an ugly Christmas ornament designed by a kindergartener en route to 21st-place finish. It was a special "Showtime" scheme that ended his title dreams early, a 177-point deficit in the standings at the moment simply too much to overcome.

"It was just a comedy of errors," said crew chief Darian Grubb matter-of-factly, partially to blame for Stewart's sixth straight finish of 11th or worse at this track. "We evidently just missed it on the setup. [And] Anytime we had a hope that we were getting somewhere, we got stuck in our pits two or three times, or missed our pit box or something. It was just a mess."

But perhaps Gordon's night was messiest of all, a race nearly headed towards early retirement when the alternator went out on the No. 24 under green. By the time he'd diagnosed the problem, Greg Biffle had nearly T-Boned him. A car that once looked as a top-5 lock had now fallen a lap down to Johnson. That's where his night ended, a pit road speeding penalty adding insult to injury while watching the No. 48 team put a virtually insurmountable edge on him inside the Chase standings -- again.

"We had about everything go wrong that could go wrong," Gordon said after slumping to 23rd, officially 156 points behind Johnson. "Things are not looking good, but we'll just keep going, get to the next one, and see what happens."

Sounds like a man who's getting sick of repeating that same line year after year.

4) Kyle Busch is snakebitten at Charlotte.

It's bad enough little Busch is out of the Chase, a blown engine blowing up his spot in the postseason a second time in three seasons. But honestly, taking one look at Busch's reaction after finishing second at Charlotte made that seem meaningless by comparison, a man who suddenly looked like he'll spend his spare time this week punching random walls.

"Nobody can put it in perspective right now," he said of a runner-up finish that would have left most drivers drooling with delight. "Had the best car all night, and flat out gave it away. Very, very frustrating to not come out of this track with a win at a track I've been very, very good at. It's my job to come out and get a win for these guys, and I'm the one behind the wheel -- I apologize, didn't make the right adjustments and gave it up."

A quick look at past history, though, shows how and why Charlotte is pushing him over the edge. Scoring seven consecutive top-10 finishes here, his No. 18 Toyota has paced the field for a total of 505 laps only to come up empty. There was the race in May 2008, where he led 61 laps only to be passed by Kasey Kahne during the final green-flag run to the finish. Or how about one year later, when a dominating performance was halted by rain-shortened fairy tale that Mother Nature handed David Reutimann? For a man who can't take losing well to begin with, there's only so many hard-luck performances the man can take -- especially knowing this season's chances of another trip to Victory Lane are slim. He's totaled just two career victories in 49 starts over the last five tracks on the schedule combined.

5) Good nights for big underdogs looking to salvage their seasons.

Ever so quietly, a handful of drivers with disappointing seasons continue to build valuable momentum heading into 2011. David Ragan ran tenth, the once-promising Roush Fenway driver notching his first top-10 finish at an unrestricted track since last October (Fontana). Regan Smith was 13th, making the most of his single-car, Furniture Row racing effort to post the first back-to-back top 15s of his Sprint Cup career. Scott Speed was 19th, his second top-20 run in three weeks while the Formula One convert fights for his life as a likely free agent. And Bobby Labonte, running for a new team half-owned by his brother, quietly brought the No. 10 Stavola Labonte car home in 22nd place, one lap down.

Are these runs that'll make Johnson, Hamlin, and Harvick cringe in fear? Of course not. But for each of these men, it's a step in the right direction after seemingly endless slumps.

RACE GRADE: B- Over five years after the famous "levigation," Charlotte's new asphalt has yet to deliver us the legendary races of old. Saturday night's affair certainly had its moments, and watching Johnson salvage his evening was impressive for any die-hard who understands how difficult that situation was. But once again, some strung out racing late was paired with a questionable debris caution to bunch up the field, the seventh such yellow we've seen in the last two races and the second straight within the final 30 laps.

"I don't know what the caution was for," criticized Kyle Busch. "You know, apparently there was a mouse that ran across the racetrack or something."

Squeak! Squeak! That was the sound of NASCAR's accountant, shrieking with joy at another "secret" fine. But rest assured that no amount of yellow flags can hide a track that's still struggling with the right tire/chassis/pavement combination.

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