Paulk: Ganassi gambles with IndyCar shake up
Chip Ganassi has enjoyed incalculable success in the IndyCar Series, in part, because he's been willing to challenge conventional wisdom and take bold, yet measured chances in an unpredictable sport.
The Fox Chapel native thrust his open-wheel team into the spotlight by winning the first of nine series championships with Jimmy Vasser in 1996. Then, in 2000, he began a meteoric rise to the top as Juan Pablo Montoya captured the first of five Indianapolis 500 victories.
Against all odds, Ganassi stubbornly decided to field a Sprint Cup team when most everyone suggested he would spin his wheels. In 2010, Jamie McMurray piloted the No. 1 Chevrolet of Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing to a sweep of the series' biggest races — Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.
Ganassi the owner sometimes thinks like Ganassi the driver. He is often cautious, but always open to making a daring move.
On Friday, Ganassi deciding that maintaining the status quo wouldn't close the gap between Chip Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, which is positioned to win the IndyCar Series title with Helio Castroneves during this weekend's open-wheel doubleheader in Houston.
Ganassi made two significant moves to put his team back in contention. He signed reigning Indy 500 winner Tony Kanaan and switched to Chevrolet from Honda, a manufactured that helped him post 40 wins over the past seven seasons.
“It is not all the time that you can find yourself as an owner with drivers that represent seven championships, five Indianapolis 500 victories and over 75 wins,” Ganassi said. “That feels pretty good.
“I think TK (Kanaan) will add a lot to this organization, not only from his talent behind the wheel but also from his leadership skills off the track. I am very exciting to add TK to an already talented group of drivers.”
The addition of Kanaan gives CGR three Indy 500 winners, which also includes three-time winner Dario Franchitti and 2008 winner Scott Dixon. Kanaan has bounced from one team to another the past several seasons, but may have found stability with Ganassi.
“I couldn't be happier to join this organization,” said Kanaan, who gave KV Racing its biggest win at the Brickyard. “They are the gold standard that all IndyCar teams measure themselves against.
“Chip has created a fantastic organization that judges success by just one thing — winning both races and championships. I can't wait for next year to get here. This is a very big day for me.”
Ganassi had considered rehiring Montoya to drive his fourth IndyCar entry in 2014. Montoya, who piloted the No. 42 Chevrolet in the Sprint Cup Series for Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, wasn't offered a contract extension. He was replaced by Kyle Larson, who will make his Cup debut next weekend in Charlotte, N.C.
It's a disheartening day for Honda, which owes much of its success to CGR. Art St. Cyr, president of Honda Performance Development, praised Ganassi on the one hand then reminded all who would listen that the manufacture did just fine the first time the two split in 1999.
“It may be worth noting that when our previous — and also very successful — association
with the Ganassi organization in Championship Auto Racing Teams competition ended … Honda went on to win 15 races over the next two seasons,” Cyr said.
Ganassi and Roger Penske have been engaged in a dogfight the past two decades. But the rise of Andretti Autosport, which includes defending series champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, has created some semblance of parity.
For the second straight season, CGR got off to a slow start. Franchitti, Dixon and Charlie Kimball spotted Castroneves too much of a lead to overcome.
Even though Dixon has a long-shot chance at overtaking Castroneves during the final three races, Ganassi knew he had to reshuffle the deck. He has two aces in the hole with Franchitti and Dixon, but Penske and Michael Andretti possessed the better hands the past two seasons.
With Kanaan, Ganassi figures he's strengthen his hand.