Chip Ganassi Racing is proving that bigger is not always better in NASCAR.
The organization, whose roots trace back to 1989 when Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates opened a shop part-time for Kyle Petty, evolved into the modern day Ganassi Racing when open-wheel driver-turned-owner Chip Ganassi came calling in 2001.
Although the organization has transitioned through different names, manufacturers and drivers since Petty wheeled the No. 42 Peak Antifreeze Pontiac, for the first time since 2002, Ganassi is at the top of the sport.
Tony Lunders, who joined the organization three years ago, is currently team manager for Ganassi Racing. He insists there was no magic involved in the company’s turn around. Nor can he point to just one area of improvement. The seeds sowed early last year began to bear fruit toward the end of the 2016 season.
Team manager on what's behind the sudden success
In 2017, the teams have blossomed. Kyle Larson currently leads the Monster Energy Cup standings. Veteran teammate Jamie McMurray is sixth in points.
“Last year, we started the season and we were in a hole for sure,” Lunders said. “The car performance wasn’t there, and we just made a solid effort in the spring to ramp up in every area, not one particular area. We focused on aerodynamics, making the cars lighter, putting the weight where we wanted--just a lot of different areas from the pit crew to team personnel.
“We carried that through the summer. We had a little bit of a dip in the Chase, but we ended the Chase pretty strong. I don’t think we changed the way we did anything in the offseason. We just stayed kind of on the same trajectory and kept working more in the same areas that we had started last year. We upgraded and changed some people around and worked on the basic core stuff. I wouldn’t say we did anything different this year than what we have been doing.”
Filling a hole in management
Lunders worked in different race shops and on pit crews before moving into management. He was initially recruited by Ganassi Racing as Jamie McMurray’s car chief in 2014. He expanded his role, concentrated on speed-related items and was promoted to competition manager later that year.
“There was no one in my current position at the time,” Lunders said. “They had been looking for the right fit--Max (Jones, General Manager) had--and so the more I did the more I took on.
“When the Chase started that year, Max came to me and asked me to be the competition manager. So, I did that. I have been in that role for the last two seasons, and then this winter we had a little bit of restructure. We brought Mark McArdle in as competition director and I’m now the team manager.”
The shift in Ganassi management provided depth to the front office. It also enabled Lunders to focus on what he calls “the shop-based group” which includes the fabrication and assembly shops as well as the travel teams.
Lunders also works as the liaison between NASCAR, Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports, who supplies Ganassi Racing with engines, transmissions and gears. Ganassi builds its own chassis.
Taking SHR's place in Chevrolet camp
Certainly the departure of Stewart-Haas Racing from the Chevy camp has elevated Ganassi’s status with the manufacturer. Lunders credits Chevy for giving Ganassi Racing the necessary “tools to succeed and build fast race cars”. He says working Hendrick Motorsports has been a pleasure — and he hopes the relationship is somewhat reciprocal.
“We use their stuff and the product is great, but we also have input as well to try to help them improve it,” Lunders said. “I think we have shared some things with them that maybe they could benefit from, as well as, us benefitting in return.
“As in any relationship it just takes a lot of effort on both sides to push that and make sure we are getting the best thing we can get.”
Larson’s first Cup win came last August at Michigan Speedway in the 2017 aerodynamic package. NASCAR had a trial run with the lower-downforce configuration at both Michigan races and Kentucky Speedway last year. Larson’s average finish at those races was 7.66. McMurray’s average result was eighth. The package went into full-time competition at Atlanta, four races ago. Larson hasn’t finished worse than second since. McMurray’s average finish in the last four races is 9.75.
Lunders, however, doesn’t believe the organization’s progress is connected to the new car. He believes its the time and effort at the shop that has contributed to the recent results.
“I think it’s more the way our teams are working together, the focus our drivers have right now and the product the guys are building the quality of cars that they are bringing to the race track,” Lunders said. “I think that has more to do with it than the downforce that we took off the cars.
“Until you start the season out, you can work all Winter long and not know where you stack up against your competitors until you get to Daytona, Atlanta, Las Vegas and that is the real test. We tested Las Vegas, we tested at Phoenix in the off-season. We felt those tests went well, but until you are at the track going up against everybody you don’t really know where you rank.”
Since the introduction of NASCAR’s Playoff system in 2004, Ganassi Racing had not qualified two teams into the post-season until last year. In addition to making the Playoffs, the organization’s goal included winning races. Larson did that. While Lunders remains a pragmatist, he believes the team must raise its expectations.
“We want to win multiple races with both cars, we want to get them both in the (Playoffs), but I think the championship is in there as well, if we continue to do the job we are doing now we have a serious shot at contending through the (Playoffs) and having a shot at the championship.”
To be a contender, Lunders knows the teams must capitalize on accumulating stage points and playoff points. With NASCAR’s new stage format, teams have the opportunity to gain points by winning segments and finishing in the top 10 in each stage. In addition to Larson’s first victory of the season, he also earned his first stage win at Auto Club Speedway. Larson is the only driver on the Cup tour to score points in the first two stages of all five races this year.
“We are leading the points right now with the No. 42,” Lunders said of Larson’s 29-point advantage over Chase Elliott. “The regular season points leader carries 15 points into the Playoffs and that goes through the first three rounds. I think it will be really big for the teams that can carry a stack of points in there to get yourself some cushion when you have some misfortune at some of the first few tracks.
“Neither of our cars made it out of the first-round last year, which was disappointing because we felt we had cars that could move on. We had some mechanical failures and issues that kept us from getting out of Dover alive. I think just continuing to perform at a high level and the guys that are going to make it through the rounds will make the least number of mistakes and having the bonus points will help that a lot.”
Still searching for first NASCAR title
Ganassi has won titles in Champ Car (four), IndyCar (seven) and Grand-Am (five). But after 16 seasons in NASCAR, Ganassi has never won a championship. If one of the two drivers could pull off the feat this season, Lunders says, “It would be huge.”
“I’m not sure I have the words to put that into perspective,” Lunders said. “It would be really big for a two-car team that has come from where we have been if you look at the last five to 10 years through the points and situations, to be able to pull that off.
“Like I said earlier, I think we have the equipment and people to do so. We have all the necessary things. We just have to put ourselves in that position this year.”