Ganassi hopes to be among Sprint Cup elite
Chip Ganassi figured his Sprint Cup program had turned the corner three years ago when Jamie McMurray captured the checkered flag in a thrilling Daytona 500.
Ganassi's confidence was bolstered, too, when McMurray outdueled his nearest pursuers to win the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway six months later. Then, Juan Pablo Montoya put together a consistent stretch of summer runs before falling short of making back-to-back Chase appearances.
Ganassi, a Fox Chapel resident, was confident his two-car program had established itself as one of NASCAR's best. With loftier expectations, Ganassi envisioned EGR pulling even with the likes of Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.
However, the past two seasons have been punctuated with a series of mishaps and misfortune that stalled EGR's seemingly inevitable ascension among the Cup elite. While a bewildered EGR stumbled, Ganassi's IndyCar Series rival, Roger Penske, surprisingly vaulted to the top in 2012 when Brad Keselowski delivered Penske Racing its first Cup title.
For years, Ganassi and Penske have dominated open-wheel racing in America. They have won the Indianapolis 500 five of the past seven years. Now the pressure is on Ganassi to fire up a duo that only three years ago appeared poised to challenge for a Cup championship.
Ganassi was disappointed after last year's failures. He didn't get much in return for the millions he invested. Neither of his Chevrolet-powered cars — McMurray's No. 1 or Montoya's 42 — advanced to the 10-race postseason.
“There are two bottom lines in the sports business,” said Ganassi, who employs the reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti. “There are wins and losses, and profit and losses. They are both connected on many levels.
“I've never shied from the fact we need to get our NASCAR team to where the other teams are, and that's why I'm here. We've shown we can win on occasion. We're not sticking our heads in the sand.
“We made a lot of changes in 2012, and we invested a lot in engineering,” Ganassi added. “We have a whole new facility at our work shop. Frankly, it didn't translate as quickly as I would have liked on the track. If you talk to the crew chiefs and drivers, they'll tell you we are light years ahead of last year's pace. The early season testing was very promising.”
Of course, similar expectations were echoed a year ago, This time, EGR's teams are expecting a different result when qualifying begins Sunday for the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.
“We have a lot of momentum behind us,” said Montoya, who finished 22nd in points last year. “Our team is getting stronger. I would like to show people how fast we are going to go instead of talking about it. We were getting better near the end of last year. We started the season with a series of up-and-down performances, and we didn't recover quickly enough.”
Montoya acknowledged that one of EGR's problems was the lack of team chemistry. Ganassi lured plenty of talent from various Cup teams, but the Chase was out of reach before they pulled things together.
“We discovered that if you keep changing stuff, it's going to make things worse,” Montoya said. “We know what we need to do. We have the same group of guys who are pulling in the same direction. You have to implement all the new ideas. Last year, we went in every direction possible.”
“The last 14 races we tried to put all those thoughts into the car,” said McMurray, whose 20th-place showing was slightly better than his 27th-place finish in 2011. “Everyone believes in the same thought now.”
Ganassi, though, isn't afraid to make further changes. The most significant move was a switch to Hendrick engines. For the most part, his drivers' crews remain intact.
“I'm pedaling as fast as I can,” Ganassi said sarcastically. “We haven't let up. I've got a lot of energy, so I'm optimistic. You find optimism in our drivers.”
Montoya is eager to get started, considering he'll be racing for a contract extension at season's end.
“You keep your head down and work hard,” Montoya said. “It's the only thing we can do. Everyone has to realize how far we've come. Before I was here they never won a race.”
And a Ganassi driver didn't make it into the Chase until Montoya qualified in 2008 and finished eighth in points.
“We've all been in the business long enough that we know what our expectations are,” Ganassi said. “If you're not running at the front on a consistent basis, you've got work to do in this sport, and we accept that challenge.
“We get out of bed every day to compete in racing. These are professional drivers, so it's not a question of us slapping them on the butt to motivate them.”
McMurray knows the proper motivation will come in the form of a Daytona 500 victory. Besides, his victory at Daytona three years ago put EGR on course to become one of NASCAR's elite stock-car programs.
“Our sport reminds me of golf. If you birdie the first hole, it makes the whole round better,” McMurray said. “If you get a triple bogey, it's a big hole you've dug. It's no different in racing.”