McMurray hangs on at Martinsville to secure spot in top 35

Updated: March 30, 2008, 9:54 PM ET
Associated Press

MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- Jamie McMurray started near the front, ran there most of the day and then found himself backing off as the Goody's 500 neared the finish.

Such is life these days for a NASCAR Sprint Cup driver who can be left more concerned about being in the top 35 in points than about going all-out for a victory.

McMurray arrived at Martinsville Speedway 36th in the standings, which meant he had to earn his way into the field during qualifying. It's a situation that leaves a driver on edge, worried about missing races and disappointing critical sponsors.

So there was McMurray in the final few laps of a race that featured 18 cautions for 89 laps essentially guarding his safety -- and the finish that would solve his problem.

"I had to race those guys a little bit differently than I would have if we hadn't been in that situation," the driver for Roush Fenway Racing said of the points race.

"When guys would get underneath me, I just let them go because we had to finish well today so we could have a bit of a buffer in the points when we go to Texas."

It worked. McMurray finished eighth and climbed to 30th in points.

Relieved, McMurray said the tension left him with valuable lessons.

"I learned a lot about myself and fans," he said. "I never really understood how loyal NASCAR fans are, and having the weeks that I had and everything, and to support a guy that doesn't win very often, that's a really loyal fan and makes you feel good."

The new guys outside of the top 35? Sam Hornish Jr. and David Reutimann, who dropped to 36th and 37th following Sunday's race.

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JUNIOR JUNCTION: Dale Earnhardt Jr. couldn't have fit in better with Hendrick Motorsports at the track it dominates -- until he ruined a chance for victory.

Earnhardt was in seventh place when the final green flag flew with 90 laps to go. He had already led a race-best 146 laps and seemed to have one of the best cars, but said he deprived himself a chance to make a move on the leaders by driving too hard.

"I should have been more patient," Earnhardt said.

"Jeff (Gordon) was patient and he was riding and I got by him and I thought, `All right, now I can get these other guys on old tires,' but I just burned it up so we didn't get the finish we could have or needed to have. We got a good finish."

Earnhardt finished sixth and now hasn't won in the last 68 races.

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UNSTOPPABLE: Elliott Sadler's team kept Dennis Setzer on hand Sunday, wanting to have him available if Sadler's aching back forced him to get out of the car.

Setzer won Saturday's truck race and practiced the No. 19 Dodge some, too, but Sadler made the qualifying runs and never gave up the wheel in Sunday's 500-lap race.

"I took a few Tylenol and I felt great when the race was on," Sadler said after starting 25th and finishing 15th. "I'll definitely be feeling this in the morning."

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HOT TALK: Jeff Burton is one of the most articulate and cool-headed NASCAR drivers, rarely given to making controversial comments, even in the heat of the moment.

He thinks he and other drivers should always have the opportunity, and that the idea of drivers getting a 15-minute cooling off period after a race is "terrible."

"I think that the emotions of our sport are what makes this sport work," Burton said. "If drivers, crew members can't show their emotions, then why watch?"

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NASCAR DOWNUNDER?: Is NASCAR planning a race in Australia?

Marcus Marshall, a driver in Australia's V8 Supercar Series, said Saturday that countryman Marcus Ambrose's success in NASCAR has boosted the sport's popularity in the country, and sparked rumors that a dormant 1½-mile track might get active again.

The track hasn't been used for about eight years, he said.

"It was pretty popular and now there are rumors at the moment of it opening up again, so that kind of fits with NASCAR maybe looking to be more international and Australia as a place to maybe take a round of one of their affiliated championships."

Queensland, Australia, is already a destination of the Indy Racing League.

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PIT STOPS: Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer was to serve as grand marshal, but had to cancel when the helicopter that was to bring him to the track couldn't fly because of icy conditions. Beamer is recovering from a left knee replacement. ... Greg Biffle qualified 19th but started 43rd after changing engines. He finished 20th

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END QUOTES: "I think all the fenders are on it, just none of them are the shape they were at the start of the race." -- Dario Franchitti.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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