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Notebook: McMurray feels at home at Daytona with EGR

February 19, 2011, Dave Rodman,

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Defending 500 champ says victory says more about team than it does about him

If you've known Jamie McMurray for any length of time, there's very little about his demeanor that's strikingly different in 2011 -- even though he enters Sunday's 53rd annual Daytona 500 as its defending champion rather than just another contender.

"I don't really feel any different," McMurray said. "But I think it's something for me, and the whole [Earnhardt Ganassi Racing] organization. For a while, Chip's cars were really good, and then they weren't. Now, for the last two years they've been really good and this year, they're really good, so I think people look at it as both a [strong] organization and a driver, rather than just one or the other."

Daytona 500

Race Lineup
2.Jeff Gordon Chevrolet
3.Kurt Busch Dodge
4.Jeff Burton Chevrolet
5.Regan Smith Chevrolet
6.Clint Bowyer Chevrolet
7.Kevin Harvick Chevrolet
8.Michael Waltrip Toyota
9.Matt Kenseth Ford
10.Kyle Busch Toyota
11.Kasey KahneToyota

Neither McMurray nor his teammate, Juan Montoya, made the 2010 Chase, but they won four races between them -- including a pair of marquee events by McMurray: The Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Ganassi himself won the Indianapolis 500 and kicked off the 2011 season by winning the Rolex 24 at Daytona Grand-Am Rolex Series race. And McMurray said the pure and simple comfort level he feels at EGR makes all the difference for him.

"The whole time I was at Roush, I was trying to make it like here -- and it's just 180 degrees different," McMurray said. "Roush is a really cold environment, and Jack [Roush] is really cold. That's not important to some people -- but it is, to me.

"Chip and I are good friends, and that's not strange, but it's just different. I go to Chip's motorhome just to hang out and talk -- we talk racing and we talk about life. And I never had that. It's not that just that is gonna make you a winner, or not a winner. But it takes everything to make you comfortable in your environment.

"It's something I have here that I didn't have [at Roush Fenway]."

NASCAR opens grilles on Cup cars

Anticipating warmer temperatures for Sunday's Daytona 500 -- and perhaps fearing the new Ford FR9 engines might have a cooling system advantage on the power plants of other manufacturers -- NASCAR relaxed its restrictions on grille openings across the board.

NASCAR is allowing teams to widen the inlet openings from 50 to 60 square inches.

"NASCAR is letting Cup teams open up their air inlet openings some for Daytona 500 -- going from 2.5 x 20-inch to 3 x 20-inch openings," NASCAR spokesperson Kerry Tharp said Saturday. "With continued warm weather forecast for [Sunday], this move gives the teams more air to cool their engines."

The concession on grille openings is a tacit acknowledgment that two-car drafts are here to stay, at least for Sunday's Daytona 500.

Cinderella story

Rockingham Speedway owner Andy Hillenburg, who also owns race teams and is a former driver, made a Daytona 500 in the mid-1990s as an extreme underdog.

This week, Hillenburg is spotting for Brian Keselowski, and he's been reveling in the fact that Keselowski, driving a five-year-old chassis with no financial backing and little outside help, was pushed into the Daytona 500 last Thursday by his younger brother, Penske Racing driver Brad Keselowski.

"Everyone loves a Cinderella story -- I was lucky enough to have one, myself, 10 or 12 years ago when I made the Daytona 500 in very similar circumstances," Hillenburg said. "I'm just having a lot of fun being a small part of this story."

Going back for 500

In addition to Dale Earnhardt Jr., who crashed his pole-winning car in the opening practice Wednesday, David Reutimann will also be among the cars falling to the rear for the start of Sunday's Daytona 500.

Reutimann, who will line up 24th before dropping back, suffered damage to his No. 00 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota when it was turned into a pinball in an accident. Reutimann's crew initially thought they'd repair the damage to each side of the car, but decided to go to the backup.

A NASCAR spokesman said any other cars dropping back wouldn't be known until Sunday morning.

A good year

Goodyear brought about 8,000 tires to Daytona for the last month of activity, including testing and Speedweeks. But for the first time, all three of NASCAR's national tours are using the same tire combination, according to Greg Stucker, Goodyear's director of race tire sales.

"The only difference was the badging on the Camping World Truck tires was Wrangler instead of Eagle," Stucker said. "Over the last several years it has been different, for the Nationwide and Camping World series. But certainly with the move by the Nationwide car to the new chassis, that was the thing to do.

"And we felt like the benefits we gained with this package would be a benefit for the trucks as well. Any time you can simplify a process it makes it easier for everybody -- but what drives the process is, 'What's the right package for the vehicle?' And the gains we found with this [combination] from a handling perspective, we thought would be beneficial to everyone."

Kvapil packs a good guest

Wisconsin native Travis Kvapil attended the Super Bowl and watched his home-state team, the Green Bay Packers, defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Two weeks later, a member of the winning team with Daytona Beach roots will return the favor.

Safety Nick Collins, a Florida native who attended Bethune-Cookman University, will be in Kvapil's Front Row Motorsports' pit to cheer Kvapil on.

"It's a privilege to be invited to the Daytona 500, and it will be cool to go back home where I spent my college years," Collins said. "My son loves NASCAR, so this will be a big deal for him, too."

Sporting News Wire Service contributed to this report.