Thursday, February 18, 2010

CAR CUP: Ganassi Ready To Challenge Top Teams

Chip Ganassi freely admits that he had to convince Bass Pro Shops to take Jamie McMurray as driver of the No. 1 Earnhardt Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. Not known as a hunter or fisherman, McMurray’s pairing with the outdoors retail chain was seen as a bit of a stretch. But Ganassi wouldn’t budge. His theory is to hire the best drivers he can, and in this case, he felt the best driver was McMurray. Ganassi isn’t much of a budging type anyway. A former racer himself, he wants to race and be competitive. He wants to win. He can be stubborn, but as seen by the merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc., he knows when he has to make significant change. He’s also not afraid to play hard ball – negotiating with Toyota and Chevrolet all the way into last November before deciding on the Chevrolet deal. Depending on the day and his mood, Ganassi can be acerbic or hilarious. He has won the world’s biggest races in the Indianapolis 500, and now the Daytona 500. He is an accomplished road-racing owner. His open-wheel drivers have won seven championships and 74 open-wheel races. In NASCAR, Ganassi hopes to be more successful in 2010 and beyond. His drivers had made 803 starts with just six victories entering this season. But now he has a Daytona 500 win, thanks to Jamie McMurray’s victory last Sunday. That milestone win combined with the steady improvement of 2009 Chase For The Sprint Cup participant Juan Pablo Montoya has Ganassi and his organization in the spotlight. "He’s a great team owner in that he understands what makes each driver tick," says McMurray. "Juan is not me, obviously. Different attitudes, everything is a lot different about us. Chip knows how to treat Juan and he knows how to treat me. That’s what’s made him so successful." After a tumultuous 2008 when Dario Franchitti’s ride vanished without sponsorship and the team eventually merged Cup operations with DEI, Ganassi finally made the Chase For The Sprint Cup with Montoya in 2009 – the first time in six years of the Chase that Ganassi had a participant. He said that validated his team and the change. Now the Daytona 500 is the next step toward being a championship contender. "It’s huge," Ganassi says about the 500 win. "It’s one of the mountains you want to climb. And that’s what I love about this sport. When you get to the top of one mountain, you can see more clearly the next mountain to climb. That’s what’s great about auto racing, There’s always that next mountain to climb. That’s what we want to do and that’s what we’re going to endeavor to do. The view is pretty good from here right now." The view is good even though Ganassi doesn’t have a four-car team. He had tried the three-car operation, but he wasn’t going to run a third car out of his own pocket just for the sake of doing so. He tried it for part of the 2008 season with Franchitti and then 2009 with Aric Almirola and he just couldn’t find the funding to make it work. "People look at your team and they don’t understand the ups and downs internally of what you’re dealing with," Ganassi says. "We’ve certainly had our ups and downs. We’ve always stayed on plan of how we want to operate the team. We’ve always given the drivers equal equipment. We don’t have a No. 1 or No. 2 car. We put every effort into the cars. "Maybe we haven’t always been able to afford the shiny contracts that were so popular two years ago. But we always stayed on plan with how we operate as a team. Our cars are pretty good. We’ve got our engine thing sorted out. We’ve got good engines." Getting the engines sorted out was a product of the DEI merger, which meant getting rid of the Ganassi engine shop and going to Earnhardt Childress Racing Technologies engines. But with all the change, there came massive layoffs from both the DEI and Ganassi sides. With virtually all teams in NASCAR suffering layoffs, Ganassi was far from alone in the reduction of staff. But without the performance on the track until Montoya made the Chase last year, it looked from the outside as if things were not stable. "We’ve taken our criticism," says team co-owner Felix Sabates. "But Chip is a very focused person. If you cut his veins, he’s got motor oil coming out of them. He never wavered from the plan he had. "Sometimes it takes a lot of money to implement these plans. Money these days don’t grow on trees." That’s what made 2009 so important, Ganassi said, and the Daytona 500 win was an extension of the team improving the perception that it can get the job done. "They didn’t believe the naysayers," Ganassi says. "So many times in this sport, if you’re not Hendrick or Roush or Gibbs, I get the feeling sometimes you guys in the media think these [other] teams aren’t capable and that isn’t true. There are a lot of teams that are capable. Maybe the model isn’t a massive team. "I’d like to think we just stayed on plan and didn’t listen to all this peripheral [b.s.] that was going on." The plan didn’t change when McMurray replaced Martin Truex Jr., who left after the 2009 season for Michael Waltrip Racing. Truex came from DEI, and with him came Bass Pro Shops. Now Bass Pro Shops is in the final year of its deal in 2010, and winning was important as Ganassi tries to keep it as a sponsor. "It’s not easy to inherit things like that, and quickly you become sometimes fast friends in this business," Ganassi says. "It always can be challenging and it can be a little tenuous. Everything thankfully has worked out for the best. "They’re great people. They, like a lot of companies, went through some belt-tightening the last little bit, but they hung in there with us and supported us and supported the decisions that we brought forward to them with the driver." Did Ganassi have to convince Bass Pro Shops to take McMurray? "Yes, yes and yes," Ganassi says. Ganassi wanted McMurray even though he never improved his finishes after leaving Ganassi in four seasons with Roush Fenway Racing. "I always stuck with our team thing that we go with the best driver that’s available," Ganassi says. "That’s what the sponsors need to understand about how we operate. At the end of the day, it’s about performance and we put the effort into the team and into the cars and hopefully that is why we can attract the drivers and drivers want to drive for us. "We all know Jamie left for a big contract and back in the day, we couldn’t afford those big contracts. The fact of the matter is today we probably can’t afford those big contracts. But that’s never been the foundation of our team. It’s about the cars, it’s about racing, it’s about the team, it’s about the equipment." The equipment is good enough to compete for a championship, McMurray crew chief Kevin Manion says. Winning the Daytona 500 just adds to the team’s confidence. "I think it let everyone know that we’re a real team, Jamie is a real driver," Manion says. "We have a seasoned team, a seasoned owner and a seasoned driver that came all together. The rest of the year will prove that the team is ready. We’re ready for California. The car is ready. The team is ready." And Ganassi is ready. "I love this business," Ganassi says. "I live for this business every day. I love racing. I love being involved in it. … If you’re in NASCAR or up in Indianapolis or the sports cars, I enjoy doing that. It’s what makes me tick. It’s what winds me up. "I’ve been blessed to work with some great people, great teams. Who could possibly think as a little kid when you’re racing your little stock cars around or driving go-karts that someday you could make a living doing this? I’m blessed. I love this business. My interests are few outside of this and this is what I love and that is why I’m here."



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