Racing Icon Chip Ganassi Guns For His First Nascar Cup Title – Forbes
Chip Ganassi, 59, has accomplished just about everything someone could in auto racing. He had a five-year career as a driver before launching his own CART team in 1990. As an owner, he has won the Indy 500, Daytona 500, Brickyard 400, 24 Hours of Le Mans and more. His teams claimed 18 championships and more than 190 checkered flags. Ganassi was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame last year.
But the big one that has eluded Ganassi is a Nascar Cup championship. This year, Ganassi has his best shot to claim a title since he entered the sport as an owner in 2001. He has two drivers in the top 12 after the first week of the Nascar playoffs with Jamie McMurray at No. 11 and Kyle Larson ranked second.
The strong season on the track comes with things unsettled off the track. Target announced plans to end its relationship with Chip Ganassi Racing at the end of the Nascar season after 28 years together. Target pulled out of Ganassi’s IndyCar team last year and then Nascar this year after 16 years. Target plans to focus its sports sponsorships more on soccer. Target was the primary sponsor of Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet.
But winning has a way of getting people interested. “The success we are having on the track is helping us with new conversations,” says Chip Ganassi Racing president Steve Lauletta. He expects to announce plans for an expanded role on the No. 42 car for CreditOne Bank, which first joined Ganassi last year with McMurray. After the first big sponsor announcement, Lauletta expects more sponsors to fall into place for Larson, who at 25 is considered one of the most promising young stars in the sport after racking up four wins this year.
“Kyle has gotten better every year,” says McMurray. “He came into our sport in 2014 and I remember Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon talking about how great he was.”
McMurray, 41, is one of only three drivers to win the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 500 in the same year, which he did in 2010. McMurray has not won since 2013, but has 14 top tens this year and is on pace for his best average finish of his career.
“Our team has gotten better over the last few years,” says McMurray. “The rule changes benefited our organization as much or more than others.” McMurray says the new requirement of smaller splitters and spoilers has helped him this year.
McMurray has also embraced Nascar’s cycling craze with many drivers, including Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, Trevor Bayne, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and others logging hundreds of miles on their road bikes this year. McMurray edged Johnson by three minutes this summer in the 103-mile Assault on Mt. Mitchell bike race.
“There is nothing you can do to duplicate the heat inside a car. It is part of what makes your blood pressure get so high. But the cycling probably did contribute to being more mentally focused in the car this year,” says McMurray.
Lauletta says there are “a million things” that have contributed to this year’s success. He cites, in particular, the work in the engineering race department and the race shop, as well as new talent with Ganassi Racing on and off the track. McMurray is working with his crew chief, Matt McCall, for the third straight year and Larson and Chad Johnson are in their second year together. The consistency has helped with communication, according to Lauletta.
Last year was the first time Ganassi qualified two teams for the postseason, but neither car made it out the first round. Ganassi has two teams this year with a good chance to move on the playoffs with Larson one of the favorites for the title. Ganassi is the only Nascar team this year to place all of its cars in the playoffs (two Sprint Cup cars and one in the Xfinity Series). Lauletta has high hopes for a strong finish. He says, “I think we definitely have the drivers and the team and the cars that both could be at Homestead. Once you get to Homestead, it is a one-race opportunity to win a championship.”