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Larson’s busy weekend includes Knoxville Nationals, Cup race

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BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) Kyle Larson is set to race in Saturday’s Knoxville Nationals, squeezing in the prestigious sprint car event before returning to Michigan to compete in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race.

Larson says Chip Ganassi, his team owner on the Cup circuit, gave him permission to race Saturday in Knoxville, Iowa. Larson says he’s not supposed to race a sprint car the night before he’s on the track on the Cup Series, but Ganassi is making an exception this weekend.

The 25-year-old Larson is one of racing’s rising stars. He has two Cup victories this year – including in June at Michigan – and is third in the standings. He also won at Michigan last August.

More AP auto racing: http://www.racing.ap.org .

Ganassi team confident amid high expectations for Indy 500

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Chip Ganassi Racing was uncharacteristically quiet during last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. Tony Kanaan was the only member of the team to lead laps, heading the field for 19 circuits. Charlie Kimball took advantage of a strategy similar to winner Alexander Rossi’s to finish fifth, while Scott Dixon was never in contention much of the day and finished eighth. Max Chilton, in his first “500,” soldiered home in 15th.

For the 101st running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the team has a much different outcome in mind. Once again partnered with Honda, which had the superior speedway package last year, Chip Ganassi’s outfit appears to be in a much stronger position heading into this year’s race.

Most notably, Scott Dixon captured the pole, with Tony Kanaan joining him in the Fast Nine shootout before qualifying seventh. And while Chilton and Kimball start 15th and 16th, they could easily be dark horses heading into race day.

Team owner Chip Ganassi was bursting with enthusiasm when asked about returning Indianapolis Motor Speedway during a May 19 press conference.

“I mean, I’m excited. I mean I think — you know, when you come back here to Indianapolis, it’s the real thing. It’s what we’re all about. It’s why we got in this sport in the first place, is because of the Indianapolis 500. We want to win this race, and that’s what we’re here to do,” he asserted.

Mike Hull, managing director of the Verizon IndyCar Series side of Chip Ganassi’s operation, detailed the team’s success, and potential for more success, is down to people and communication, and that on the driving front, he thinks they have all their bases covered.

“In order for race drivers to win races, they have to support their teammates and their teammates have to give very unselfishly to each other when you race at a major event like this one,” Hull explained. “And it’s really, really neat to see these four drivers interact with each other knowing full well that one of the other ones could win. That’s very special, and that’s what we have at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

Dixon, the polesitter and holder of one of the fastest speeds Indianapolis Motor Speedway has seen since 1996, is not only Ganassi’s longest tenured driver but the team’s best bet for success on race day, in tandem with engineer Chris Simmons. Dixon alluded to missed opportunities (such as in 2015, when an overheating problem dropped him from the lead late in the race, and in 2011, when fuel strategy put paid to his chances) as added motivation to secure his second “500” triumph.

Scott Dixon might be the favorite going into Sunday’s Indianapolis 500. Photo: Indycar

“I think we came up short in a couple where we could have maybe stolen a couple wins there which would have definitely helped that list. But yeah, you know, it’s all focused right now on this event and preparing as well as we can,” he said.

“I think the first couple of days were definitely trying in a lot of ways but I think we found some good headway, but it’s the goal. We finished second here a couple of times and it’s almost the worst place to finish when you come so close, especially under caution.”

One might assume that as a former winner, Dixon may hold a mental edge on most of the field. But, he later revealed that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Every year is very different. The target constantly moves. The situations change. How the race plays out changes,” he said. “I think because you’ve had the sense and the feeling of that victory, you want it that much more again. So I think it maybe even adds to it.”

Teammate Tony Kanaan, who won this race in 2013, echoed those sentiments. “To me every year it’s like the first year,” he added. “I mean, I don’t get to think that I won this thing until Monday. If everything goes wrong, I might, you know, just say ‘All right, at least I won one.’ That’s the way I really think. But up until then I still get as nervous as I was the first time. I still want to win as bad as if I hadn’t won.”

Tony Kanaan is looking for his second Indy 500 triumph. Photo: IndyCar

So far, Kanaan has endured a difficult 2017 campaign. With only two finishes inside the top ten, he languishes back in 11th in the championship. Still, he recognizes that this year presents as strong a chance as he’s ever had at Indianapolis, and the strength of Ganassi’s organization creates a heightened sense of pressure to perform.

“I got extremely lucky when after I won the “500” I got hired by Chip and Mike’s organization. I think I’m in the best place I’ve ever been. So they cut my work in half by doing that,” he added. “They give me great cars, great people, and it’s just an awesome place to be. So for me, you know, I think I have one of my best shots this year.”

Outside of Dixon and Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and Max Chilton are often the overlooked men of Chip Ganassi’s four-car armada. However, each has shown the potential for success.

Kimball, a former IndyCar race winner, has very quietly established himself at the Indy 500 with consecutive finishes inside the top five (third in 2015 and fifth in 2016) to go along with two other finishes inside the top ten (eighth in 2012, ninth in 2013). Like Kanaan, Kimball has endured a difficult 2017 season, one in which he didn’t even make it through the opening lap in any race until Round 3 at Barber Motorsports Park.

Charlie Kimball has quietly put together a strong record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo: IndyCar

Kimball explained that his success is down to a simple love of the race track, and that the surrounding team may be the most vital component to ending the day in victory lane.

“I love racing around here. And on Race Day the fact that it’s a 500-mile event: it’s challenging mentally, physically, not just for us as drivers but especially for the teams, the guys on the stand, the engineers, the strategists, the guys, the crew that go over the wall. I mean, that focus that they need for those six, seven-plus stops is critical to the job we do on the racetrack,” he said.

And for Max Chilton, who has raced at such world-renowned events as the Monaco Grand Prix and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, competing at the Indy 500 left an indelible impression on him.

“I’ve done some big races, Le Mans 24 Hours, Monaco Grand Prix a number of times, but this one stands out last year,” he said. “(It was) the 100th running of the biggest race we’ve ever had here. To me that was still very incredible.”

An Indianapolis 500 victory would the first career IndyCar win for Chilton. Photo: IndyCar

While a victory for him would be an upset of sorts, Chilton knows he has everything he needs to do so. “I’m going to work as hard as I can. I feel like we got the car in a good place (in practice) and I can’t wait to be here on the 28th of May and be zooming around,” said the Briton, who was fastest during Monday practice.

The team has moved a number of pieces around – Kanaan and Kimball swapped engineers with Eric Cowdin coming back to Kanaan and Todd Malloy going over to Kimball – and other crew members have also been rotated. But as Hull explained, that comes from the strength of depth within the organization based on Woodland Drive in Indianapolis.

“We’re lucky, we have quality people in all positions, so we can do that,” Hull said. “But what it does is it provides fresh thinking even though the thinking is in the same room. And it’s all about the interaction of people. That’s what teamwork is all about and teams of people are all about. They have to pinch each other every day to remember what the priority actually is, and our priority is to win. We try to match the people up that we think can do that.”

An Indy 500 victory in 2017 would be the fifth for Chip Ganassi Racing, the previous four coming at the hands of Juan Pablo Montoya (2000), Scott Dixon (2008), and Dario Franchitti (2010, 2012).

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Ganassi excited about IndyCar’s prospects

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Chip Ganassi has a reputation of not mincing his words. The highly successful team owner is rarely ever shy and his success means that people often listen, and possibly should listen, to his opinions.

As such, Ganassi let his opinions fly during a roundtable interview at Long Beach, during which he addressed the state of the Verizon IndyCar Series. As he explained, Ganassi is firm in the belief that things are going in the right direction.

“I think it’s on an uptick,” he asserted. “I like the job that management’s doing. I like the new car. I like the new attitude. I see a lot of buzz on social media about it. The ratings are obviously a little better, I think that’s good. All the signs are pointing in the right direction.”

In particular, Ganassi is thrilled about the renderings of the 2018 universal aero kit, and is particularly happy that the series took the teams’ ideas to heart.

“I think the input the teams had came a long way,” he said. “You have an IndyCar that I think is very apropos as to what an IndyCar should look like. Everything that an IndyCar should be, I think that car represents. It’s a new look, yet it’s a look that people look at and say ‘Hey, that’s an IndyCar.’ I’m excited about it.”

Keeping that momentum and building on that it will be crucial as the month of May approaches. Ganassi is confident that will happen, but he doesn’t want outsiders too worried if unforeseen variables, such as Mother Nature, make things difficult.

“Obviously, we have to have a good May, and part and parcel is having good weather in May!” he quipped. “We went through a period when we had so many bad years of weather that it sort of brought things down a little bit. It didn’t have the buzz that IndyCar usually has. So, if we have some good weather in May, I think we’re going to have a good summer.”

Still, specific to his own team, there is an area of concern. As of writing, no full-time sponsor has been announced for Scott Dixon. While his car has carried branding from GE Light LED (St. Pete) and NTT Data (St. Pete and Long Beach) during the first two races of the season, no full-season plans have been confirmed.

Scott Dixon with has carried GED Light LED and NTT Data as sponsors in the opening two races. Photo: IndyCar

Though he wouldn’t offer specifics, Ganassi explained that deals are in the works and that the team is not hurting for funding.

“We have some good partners that have stepped up to help. I can’t thank them enough. Cessna, NTT Data, and we have a couple others you’ll hear about in the next few days. I’m quite happy with that. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re damn close and we have a couple things we’re working on that are more long-term. So, I’m optimistic,” he asserted.

Further, he added that the business mindset of a potential sponsor is different from the model in which motorsports stereotypically operates. “We look at (sponsorship), inside the sport, as season-to-season. And I don’t necessarily think companies look at it that way. They look at it as when it’s a good time for them, or if they have a product coming, or a season or specific date that they’re interested in.”

Setting aside the sponsor challenges, Ganassi repeatedly affirmed his confidence and optimism for the Verizon IndyCar Series, highlighting the leadership of Mark Miles and the stability he brought to the series, following the removal of Randy Bernard at the end of 2012. “I think he came in at a time when the series needed a combination of stability and calmness and professional management and leadership. I think he’s brought all those qualities to it.”

And, now that the series has been in a position of stability for while, Ganassi thinks it’s ready for more. “There’s stability in the tracks going forward. There’s stability in the current manufacturers. These are all things that are really good seeds to build a solid foundation to grow on. For a long time, we didn’t have the foundation of stability. Now that we have the foundation of stability, we need to make the transition from stabilizing the foundation to building the house on top it.”

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DiZinno: Dear Chip, you like winners… and Larson at Indy could be one

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Remember when you occasionally wrote open letters requesting things in hopes they could one day come true? Here’s my open letter for May, 2017, which I address to one of this country’s most successful racing team owners in Chip Ganassi.

Dear Chip,

Hi, it’s me, Tony. We’ve had occasional interactions as part of media roundtables in the past. I’m the young one in these sessions who could probably be misidentified as a PR type.

But because I have had some PR experience in the past, and because I like to think I’m somewhat knowledgeable about options that could try to help move the needle for the Verizon IndyCar Series, I would like to suggest a storyline that I’m sure you’ve thought of but never fully pulled the trigger on.

Kyle Larson. In a fifth Ganassi IndyCar this May for the 101st Indianapolis 500. Doing “The Double.”

You like winners. This is one hell of a winning storyline, and thanks to Larson finally getting his first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win of the season on Sunday in his home state of California, at Fontana’s Auto Club Speedway, I think the door should be open for him to do so.

It’s one of two big-ticket races that Chip Ganassi Racing Teams participates in that Larson hasn’t done yet, the other being the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And with no disrespect to the French endurance classic this summer, Larson’s not realistically going to bring as much potential buzz there as he would for a race that needs another spark or big-time storyline this year.

But Indy? Indy needs Larson. And it needs something that will enhance the storylines that are on the verge of happening this year, which are great inside the largely Indiana-heavy bubble of IndyCar observers and fandom, but don’t really penetrate the national sphere beyond that.

Larson is at the phase in his NASCAR career where he’s just now entering that potential stratosphere – he’s finished first, second or third in six of the last seven races, and the only time he didn’t was when he was leading the Daytona 500 but ran out of fuel on the final lap.

Like Kurt Busch in 2014, he’s got a win early in the season, which also will guarantee his spot in the NASCAR playoffs provided he makes an attempt to start every race (or even if he doesn’t, as there have been occasional exemptions the last couple years) and stays in the top-30 in points. Considering he’s leading the points right now, he should be fine there. With a win, he can afford to have one or two off weekends results-wise… even if the prospect of him doing the “double” with the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day means he could still star in both.

Larson is also used to the frenetic travel schedule of racing in one place one day, another place the next day, so on and so forth from his short-track days. It’s how he entered the NASCAR radar to begin with and why he entered with as much hype as he did. You already have a partnership with Cessna; getting Larson to-and-from Indianapolis and Charlotte from a logistics standpoint could be organized.

And here’s the thing that’s really exciting to think about – Larson is an absolute animal in cars with low downforce. It’s part of why he’s succeeded as much as he has in NASCAR this year, as the package has changed to a primary low downforce setup.

You need to have some downforce in an IndyCar, particularly at Indianapolis, but the prospect of Larson hanging out an IndyCar planted – or sideways – at 230-plus mph is utterly tantalizing. How much would Larson dare to trim out? We can only dream.

He’s won races for you in other series before. Beating a field of sports car full-timers at the Rolex 24 at Daytona meant he had to do at least three or four hours of drive-time, if not more, to help carry a car to victory which he did with Scott Dixon, Tony Kanaan and Jamie McMurray in 2015. So he already knows the fabric of what it’s like to work with Dixon and Kanaan.

Kimball, Larson and Ganassi last May. Photo: IndyCar

He made a cameo appearance last year on a practice day when Charlie Kimball changed his number from 83 to Larson’s NASCAR number of 42 to go along with a promotion for his partner, Tresiba. It was a fun story, but it wasn’t nearly as big as if it had been Larson in a 42 car in May. Here’s what Larson said at the time.

“I would love to. I was always a big Indianapolis fan growing up. I think mainly because my dad is a huge Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar fan.

“To me, I think this is the biggest race in the world by far. Yeah, I would love to race it someday, you know, be driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. He’s got so many different types of vehicles, you hopefully get the opportunity to run someday.

“Been lucky enough to run in the Rolex 24-hour race and win that. It would be incredible just to start the 500 someday in my future. But it’s more up to the guy to my left than me.

“He’s been a great car owner for me. Hopefully someday, after I win a Cup race, two, or three, a championship, I can run the Indianapolis 500.”

DAYTONA BEACH, FL – JANUARY 25: The #02 Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Target/Ford EcoBoost Riley driven by (l-r) Tony Kanaan, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Scott Dixon receive Rolex watches after winning The Rolex 24 at Daytona at Daytona International Speedway on January 25, 2015 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

Since the time of that quote, May 16, 2016, Larson’s won two Cup races – one last year at Michigan and now one yesterday in Fontana. He could and should well be a championship contender this year.

Here’s where we get to the important part of the pitch though: the commercial value in the deal. And the reason you’re as successful as you are is that you’re good at business, for your partners.

I can tell you it’s not good for business that we’ve talked and written ad nauseum about Scott Dixon – one of the greatest drivers of his generation – not having a full-time sponsor announced yet to replace Target, which left the IndyCar side of the program at the end of 2016 after supporting your team for 27 years. In your words at Mid-Ohio last year, Target was the “greatest sponsor ever.” But yet here Dixon’s been in a plain white car, which quoting the POTUS if I may, is “Sad!”

Could Target be convinced to come back for one more ‘go-round at Indianapolis, with a car that we expect is going to be a better fit for the 2.5-mile Speedway with the Honda aero kit and engine than it was last year with your competitor?

Or could Cessna, which hasn’t had its own primary sponsorship effort in an Indianapolis 500, be persuaded to step up as a natural primary backer of an effort that will require many Cessna air miles to make it happen?

LONG POND, PA – JUNE 2: Kyle Larson, driver of the #42 Cessna/NTT Data Group Chevrolet, practices for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway on June 2, 2016 in Long Pond, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

You’re already very good at navigating the field to where you can run Hondas in IndyCar, Chevrolets in NASCAR and Fords in sports cars. I don’t know how you do it but I’m impressed that you can maintain successful relationships with the manufacturers that allows you to pull this off.

Since Busch ran a Honda in his 2014 Indianapolis 500 outing and a Chevrolet in NASCAR, the driver/manufacturer crossover has been successfully navigated once before. That Rolex 24 win in 2015? That was in a Ford… and Larson drives a Chevrolet in NASCAR, so he’s worn different manufacturer gear in the past as well.

And Honda will likely need to run 18 cars to make up the field of 33 this year. You can tentatively pencil in 17 of those 18 cars, but one of the existing teams is almost guaranteed to have to add an extra car in order to ensure there’s enough entries.

You’ve got the crew from your sports car program – your team ran a fifth car as recently as two years ago for Sebastian Saavedra alongside the full-time four. Many of that crew came from the IndyCar side to begin with. Brad Goldberg could engineer the thing because he’s helped Kimball to success in the past, including his lone IndyCar race win.

And with no disrespect to Saavedra, Larson would be better for the overall business and buzz of the race.

You guys won this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona for Ford, after having won Le Mans in June, which completed a back-to-back sweep of 24-hour races.

But because a certain old “retired” driver won in a Cadillac, and that overshadowed his own co-drivers, the Ganassi/Ford win at Daytona didn’t generate as much ink as it could have.

You like winners. I like writing about winning storylines.

Larson’s stock and availability given the factors at play isn’t likely to be as high as it is now to run an extra car for this year’s Indianapolis 500.

Michael Andretti and Roger Penske can’t generate all the attention at Indianapolis this May, Andretti as the defending champion owner and Mr. Penske with five cars for the first time.

They both will be running five cars. Why not you, as well, to match?

If you can make it happen, Chip, it might be the biggest win IndyCar gets this season.

Yours sincerely,

TDZ

Before Tony Stewart was a NASCAR star, he was a dominating force in IndyCar

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Seemingly lost in Sunday’s career-ending Sprint Cup race for Tony Stewart was the fact that before he became a three-time Cup champion, Stewart was an IndyCar champion.

Stewart competed in the then-Indy Racing League for just two full-time seasons – winning the championship in 1997 and finished third in 1998.

Stewart competed in 26 total races in an Indy car, earning three wins, seven podium finishes and eight pole positions. He led nearly one-third (1,515) of the 4,375 laps he completed and had an average start of 4.8 and an average finish of 10.1.

His three career IndyCar wins came at Walt Disney World Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Pikes Peak Raceway.

While Stewart enjoyed his Indy career, there was a void that the Indiana native — who grew up 50 miles from Indianapolis Motor Speedway — will always lament: never being able to win the race he coveted the most, the Indianapolis 500.

Sure, he won two Brickyard 400s at IMS, but it wasn’t the same as winning the Greatest Spectacle In Racing.

His career record at Indianapolis:

* 1996 – started from the pole, finished 24th. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led 44 of 200 laps before engine problems caused his day to end prematurely on Lap 82. Named Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year.

* 1997 – started in the middle of the front row, finished a career-best fifth. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led 64 of 200 laps.

* 1998 – started fourth, finished a career-worst 33rd. Drove for team owner John Menard. Led just one lap but had a quick exit, leaving after 22 laps due to engine problems.

* 1999 – started 24th, finished ninth for Tri-Star Motorsports. He did not lead any laps in this race.

* 2001 – in his final Indy 500 appearance — and the final IndyCar race of his career — Stewart started seventh and finished sixth for team owner Chip Ganassi. He led 13 of 200 laps.

Indianapolis 500 - Carb Day
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That run for Ganassi – which was the second and final time Stewart attempted the double of racing at Indianapolis in the afternoon and NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600 later that evening – is described in a story from IndyCar.com.

Among the highlights of that story was Ganassi’s recollection of Stewart racing for him that afternoon and finishing sixth, and then going on to finish third that evening at Charlotte, the first driver to ever complete the full 1,100-mile “double.”

Had Ganassi acted a few years sooner to forge ties with Stewart, he may have eventually had Smoke drive in NASCAR for him as well, rather than for Joe Gibbs before Stewart became co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing in 2009.

“You know you get involved in this business and you meet people along the way and I’m just sorry we didn’t work harder to do more with him as a driver with our team,” Ganassi said of Stewart to IndyCar.com. “… It (was) 2001 and it just seems like it was a couple of years ago.”

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