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Owner Ganassi gets past financial difficulties

| Sunday, Oct. 25, 2009

As sponsors prepared to pull out of NASCAR garages a year ago, Chip Ganassi looked to survive amid an economy shifting toward an ominous downturn.

In an effort to save his oft-floundering organization, the Pittsburgh native needed an elixir to weather the sickening feeling that stock-car racing had reached its zenith, that a supposedly inevitable depression would force the hand of suddenly thrift-minded corporate executives, who for years freely spent millions on sponsorships that kept the sport in high gear.

Ganassi had traveled this road before in the mid-1990s, having survived the breakup of Championship Auto Racing Teams, a dysfunctional open-wheel governing body that ultimately dissolved, in part, because of its inability to compete with rival Indy Racing League.

So, instead of shuttering his NASCAR operation to focus on his successful IRL drivers — including the past two series champions, Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon — Ganassi brainstormed with NASCAR team executives at his Pittsburgh headquarters and agreed to merge with then-troubled Dale Earnhardt Inc.

An apparent marriage of convenience quickly evolved into one of the most productive partnerships during an era when only the mighty are thriving — Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Stewart-Hass Racing.

Now, midway through NASCAR's 10-race playoffs, the Chase for the Sprint Cup, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates — buoyed by the sometimes-pugnacious Juan Pablo Montoya — has positioned itself to achieve the unthinkable, the unimaginable: becoming the first owners to capture the IndyCar Series and Sprint Cup championships in the same year.

Ganassi, who fielded his first Cup team in 2001, is enjoying this incredible ride. Already, Franchitti and Dixon have finished 1-2 in the IndyCar Series. Montoya remains in contention to dethrone three-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

However, Ganassi's success in motor sports this year has been even more expansive. His Grand Am Rolex Sports Car Series team, Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, finished second in that series.

"I'm just glad (Ganassi) invited me back to come and play," Franchitti said. "I really enjoyed it. What a team Chip has assembled.

"I wanted to be part of the unified series, the places we get to race at and the people I get to race against and the cars I get to drive. It's pretty cool."

Ganassi, winner of seven open-wheel championships, surprised even himself with his Sprint Cup achievement.

"Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine this could happen in the Sprint Cup Series," he said. "It's about points and about taking these races one week at a time. You hear football coaches talk about this all the time, whether it's (former Steelers coaches) Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher or Mike Tomlin. But you have to have your eye on the big picture at the same time.

"We reached that point in the season when we looked at the what-ifs and wondered if we would make it. You don't think about that at the beginning of the season. To already have locked up the IndyCar championship and looking at our position in NASCAR, anything can happen between now and then.

"Our goal was to be in the Chase," added Ganassi, a former minority owner of the Pirates. "I don't think people rated us as contenders at the start of the season. We were considered back-markers of the Chase. It's nice to have surprised people with our performance."

In only his third full Cup season, Montoya has maneuvered his way through a crowded field of contenders.

After running in the middle of the pack the previous two seasons, the Colombian native rushed toward the front to put the No. 42 Target Chevrolet in contention with the Cup elite — including Johnson, four-time Cup winner Jeff Gordon and two-time Cup titleholder Tony Stewart.

Montoya began the Chase with four consecutive top-4 finishes, including third at the Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., to move into third place in points behind front-runners Johnson and Mark Martin.

But last week at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C., his car got banged up in an accident he didn't cause, and he finished 35th. That dropped him to sixth in the points — 195 points behind Johnson.

"The team has always been capable of running the way Juan's running," Ganassi said. "It may be a surprise externally, but not internally."

Montoya and Ganassi enter today's race knowing they can't afford to fall farther behind with every remaining Cup venue — save Talladega Superspeedway — historically favoring Johnson.

A winless Montoya might be in a must-win situation. A flurry of top-five finishes may only protect his position down the stretch.

"It would be nice if we can get a freaking win soon, and we can move on," Montoya told reporters last week. "As I said before, once you pass Martinsville and Talladega, you look at the points and say, 'What do we need to do for that?' "

Admittedly, Ganassi and Montoya never envisioned this scenario when the season began.

Montoya and his teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Aric Almirola, were hoping to be competitive. More importantly, they were hoping to impress nervous sponsors, who signaled during the spring that they would significantly slash their NASCAR budgets.

"In terms of satisfying our sponsors, I think our goal was to be in the Chase," Ganassi said. "Now, we're readjusting our goals. I think our sponsors are proud of what we've accomplished."

Ultimately, Franchitti's stock car racing career stalled when sponsors bolted from the team as he struggled to qualify and finish races. But Montoya's sponsors, including Target, stayed for the long haul.

"While we're trying to make our mark in NASCAR, we had some curveballs thrown at us, whether it was sponsors changing their priorities or financial downturns in the market," said Ganassi, whose relationship with Target spans 20 years. "The sports world and NASCAR have weathered some pretty serious blows to our business model — or the way we do our business — so we've had to make some changes.

"I'm lucky to have people who have been able to change, and Juan is certainly one of those people. He has adapted, and it hasn't hurt his performance."

Undoubtedly, the merger with DEI and the switch from Dodge to Chevrolet has helped. Heading into Race 6 of the Chase at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia, five of the top six in the points standing drive Chevrolets.

"Obviously, the merger took us to the next step," Ganassi said. "In this business, you don't have to be too far off to be toward the back of the pack. The back to the front is a half-second sometimes. It was just a small step we made, but you can't just look at the hard assets of the merger.

"What it brought more than tangible assets were the tradition of winning and of excellence. Sometimes, in sports, a little attitude is all you need to get to the next step."

Ganassi and Montoya envision a championship as the only obstacle to climb. Together, they already have scaled a higher mountain — winning the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and 1999 CART title.

If nothing else, they have the equipment and resources to take on the mountainous challenge of ending Johnson's Cup reign.

"Sports has two bottom lines: wins and losses, and profits and losses," Ganassi said. "You have to commit to both.

"When you race at a high level for a long time — like Gordon, Johnson and Stewart — we know the ins and outs of the guys. Juan has been racing at a high level for a long time, maybe not in our backyard."

Montoya isn't certain he wants to return to the Brickyard to chase after a second Indianapolis 500. But Ganassi acknowledged that a Montoya win in February at Daytona could pique the team's interest in vying for the Sprint Cup-IndyCar Series double — Daytona 500 and Indy 500.

"I guess it's a possibility because you cam never say never," Ganassi said. "Juan knows if it's something he wants to do, then he has a partner who will try to make something like that happen.

"We talk about things often, and I think he's so focused on NASCAR, it's not entering his mind right now. He wouldn't want to take an opportunity away from some other driver at Indy, but you never know. He's a competitor, and that's what everyone loves about him."

Montoya, though, is feeling much love for Ganassi.

"Last year was a tough year for Chip," Montoya said. "We lost a lot of sponsors, so there were a lot of changes, including three crew chiefs. But I always have faith in Chip. I never thought Chip was going to leave or something."

Instead, Ganassi is leaving nothing to chance as he pursues American motor sports' holy grail: a Sprint Cup and IRL title in the same season.

The Chip Ganassi file

Hometown: Pittsburgh

Born: May 24, 1958

College: Duquesne

Occupation: Owner of Pittsburgh-based NASCAR (Juan Pablo Montoya, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola) and Indy Racing League (Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon) teams

Career highlights: Seven open-wheel championships, including back-to-back IRL titles. ... Franchitti and Dixon won 10 of 17 IRL races this season. ... Montoya is sixth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. ... Teams have won two Indianapolis 500s (Montoya and Emerson Fittipaldi). ... He finished eighth in the 1983 Indy 500. ... Former minority owner of the Pirates.

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