BY BRAD LOCKE

Daily Journal

As a line of people stretched around the large showroom and meandered between plush leather sofas and richly decorated end tables, the scene was one perhaps unimaginable a year ago.

As Jamie McMurray signed hats and pictures, posed for pictures and patiently answered fans' questions, the NASCAR Winston Cup rookie became enveloped in affection from folks who had never heard of him until he jumped in the car of an injured Sterling Marlin and promptly won the UAW-GM Quality 500 last October, setting a modern-era record by winning in only his second Cup start.

Now McMurray, who Monday made an appearance at the new Lane Home Furnishings on McCullough Blvd., is already growing a large fan base, thanks in large part to that jolting start.

"He's just a cool little cat," said Doug Farrar of Tupelo, as he stood in line clutching a die-cast model of McMurray's No. 42 Havoline Dodge. "I think he's gonna be all right."

While it's easy for a young driver to get lost in the massive wave of "Young Guns" that has flooded NASCAR the past few seasons, McMurray quickly distinguished himself with the Charlotte win. He hasn't found Victory Lane yet in 2003, but the 26-year-old is currently 23rd in the points standings and second behind Greg Biffle in the Rookie of the Year race.

Championships aren't on McMurray's mind right now, though, even if his immediate success has raised expectations.

"I think we both want to win (the rookie honor), but there's not really anything you can do about it," McMurray said. "I don't do anything different from what I did then. It just happened to be my day to win then, and it just happened to be my second race."

That race is what drew the likes of Farrar, a longtime Jeff Gordon fan, into McMurray's camp (don't worry, Jeff, you're still Farrar's main man). McMurray is aware of that race's impact, and it provides him a little extra spark of motivation to further define himself.

"The only bad thing about that is I'm still kind of living off that Charlotte win," McMurray said, "so hopefully I'll win a race in the Havoline car before too long, and then people can talk about that."

Straight shooter

Young stars like Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have developed reputations as not only great drivers, but arrogant hardheads. For instance, Busch childishly poked out his rear - not his rear bumper, his rear - at Jimmy Spencer following a wreck last season.

McMurray, who looks more college frat boy than gearhead, hopes he isn't lumped into that perception.

"I certainly hope no one thinks of me as cocky or arrogant," he said. "I've been racing since I was 8 years old, and that's all I've wanted to do, and I'm getting a chance to do that, so I'm just living a dream."

His dream is being financed by Chip Ganassi Racing, and one of his teammates is Marlin, a 28-year Cup veteran.

It wasn't long ago that Marlin was one of the "Young Guns," and his accumulated wisdom and experience are an invaluable resource for McMurray.

"I can learn a lot from him," McMurray said of Marlin, "not just in asking him direct questions, but just hanging out with Sterling and just talking about our cars together."

With Marlin and everything else that's at his disposal, McMurray should soon see much longer lines winding his way.

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