Ganassi Made History in 2010, But Can He Keep Up The Pace Next Year
Bruce Martin, Sports Illustrated
NAPERVILLE, Ill. -- After the success team owner Chip Ganassi achieved in three major racing series in 2010, the question going into 2011 is simple: How is he going to top that?
That's a question the IZOD IndyCar Series, NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Rolex Grand America Series team owner is also asking himself.
"You could say it's pretty hard to top it, but we've been saying that for years," Ganassi said. "We've had some great years as a team and never as a team have we surpassed them. Yes, it's going to be hard to do but that is our goal now. That is why we are in racing -- to do better. I've never been in racing to just be there.
"We had a good year and I'm sorry to see it end. Those are just some records that someone else will break one day. I just hope it's not too soon."
It was the most successful season in the organization's history and one that included 19 victories across all three series it competed in. Ganassi's team became the first to ever win the "Triple Crown" of American racing with victories in the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and the Brickyard 400 all in the same season. Dario Franchitti drove to Ganassi's fourth Indy 500 victory as an owner, while Jamie McMurray won both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400. The 19-win season broke his previous record of 14 wins set in 2008.
Ganassi's team won two championships in the same season for the second time by winning the IndyCar Series (Franchitti) and GRAND-AM Rolex Sports Car Series (Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas) titles. Franchitti's win marked Ganassi's third-consecutive IndyCar title. The team also claimed the first-ever weekend sweep, winning races in all three of the major touring series (Sprint Cup, IndyCar and Rolex Series). Pruett and Rojas won the Rolex Series event at Watkins Glen (N.Y.) International, Juan Pablo Montoya picked up a Sprint Cup victory at Watkins Glen, and Franchitti completed the hat-trick with an IndyCar win at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
All five teams (two IndyCar Series, two Sprint Cup and one Rolex Series) and all six of his drivers (Scott Dixon, Franchitti, McMurray, Montoya, Pruett and Rojas) won races during the 2010 season. The organization now boasts 134 total wins from 1990 through 2010: 80 CART/IndyCar Series, 33 Rolex Series, 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, six NASCAR Nationwide Series and six ARCA Racing Series.
"Everybody wants to talk about how we won the Daytona 500, the Indy 500, the Brickyard 400, the sports car championship and the IndyCar championship," Ganassi said. "What is most gratifying to me, and you're going to think I'm nuts, is that every one of our drivers won races. That's the biggest thing of the year, personally. Huge wins are really, really big, but it's the first time all of our drivers won this year.
"You've got all your different personalities and cars and people. Yet somehow, every one of our guys found Victory Lane. That's the best barometer of success for me. Granted, if we did all that and didn't win the Daytona 500, Indy 500 and Brickyard 400, it wouldn't have been as great a year. You wouldn't dare dream about the kind of year we've had."
The one area that Ganassi wishes his team accomplished was placing one of its NASCAR drivers in the Chase. But he still has the satisfaction of winning the biggest races of the season.
"Don't make any mistake -- I would have loved to have been in the Chase, but it is also our goal to win big races," Ganassi said. "But we go out every Sunday to win the race. I sit there and look at how many great teams and drivers in the Chase that barely have been mentioned all year. The last time they got a mention is when they got in the Chase. I'd much rather have the races we won. I'm not bad-mouthing NASCAR or the Chase, but I'll take the Daytona 500 win any day over not winning the Chase."
The genesis of Ganassi's successful 2010 season came at Daytona, which included a disappointing second-place finish in one race and a surprising victory in another.
"You go into every season with goals you want to reach," Ganassi explained. "Coming into this season we had the idea that we thought we were pretty good in the 24 Hours of Daytona and we were all lined up to win, but ended up second on a small mistake the team made. Then we went into the Daytona 500 and had been searching around for the right combination of people, sponsors and drivers for so many years. We brought Jamie McMurray back and there was always some question at that point in the season if we did the right thing."
It proved to be the right decision as McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the October race at Charlotte.
"At the Daytona 500 all you can ask for is to be in the mix at the end," Ganassi said. "You need help to win that race. Jamie is a likable guy in the garage area as well as outside the garage and that helped him at the end of that race. That was a threshold moment in the history of our team. That set the stage for the rest of the year."
But there would be many more great moments for the team across all three series.
"The IndyCar season started and I knew we had good cars," Ganassi said. "We got the season started off on solid footing in all three series. As we went into the Indianapolis 500 we knew that Penske would be tough. We dominated all day at Indy with Dario Franchitti. That race is so different from Daytona. If you dominate all day at Daytona that means nothing on the last lap but if you dominate all day at Indy it's a disappointment if you don't win the race.
"At Daytona, you have no idea on the last lap what is going to happen. You can go from first or second to 10th on the last lap. It's not like that at Indianapolis so that was rewarding to win the race after Dario dominated all day because we had the best car."
In addition to Franchitti winning the Indy 500, McMurray finished second that night in the NASCAR Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. The victory would keep Franchitti in contention for the IndyCar Series title but in NASCAR, the team's chances at making the Chase faded when Montoya and McMurray experienced some bad luck at mid-season. But there were still big races to win for the team.
"Going back to the Brickyard in July, Juan [Montoya] dominated that race and Jamie [McMurray] won it so it was a great day for our team there," Ganassi recalled. "At that point all that stuff was starting to become a blur. Our team was doing well and people were excited and pumped up. Jamie was solidly back on our team and things were going great. All the demons were exorcised at that point in the season. When Jamie gets a sniff of the front he is going to the front. He is lurking back in third place and all of a sudden when he gets a sniff of the front, it's 'See you later, boys.''
"We knew we would be slugging it out for the championship in IndyCar race. And then that weekend in August when Juan won at Watkins Glen, Dario won at Mid-Ohio and the sports car won at Watkins Glen so that was kind of cool to all happen that weekend."
Franchitti would go into full-determination mode in the latter stages of the IndyCar season and would wrest the championship away from Will Power in the final race of the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"We took Dario over to NASCAR and for whatever reason it didn't happen over there in 2008," Ganassi said. "I felt an obligation to him to not let his career end like that. I was going to do everything I could to give him an opportunity for that to not happen. His NASCAR experience made him a better IndyCar driver than he was when he left the series after 2007. He threaded the needle to greatness and now he has two Indy 500 victories and three IndyCar titles.
"You can't talk about IndyCar greatness without bringing Dario Franchitti's name into the discussion."
Ganassi's season has only set the foundation for similar success in 2011. All of his drivers are back, so there is no reason to think the team can't only replicate, but improve on last year's effort, maybe even getting one or both of his Sprint Cup drivers into the Chase.