Several changes, but a fast start needed for Ganassi to open 2015


As some of the pieces of Chip Ganassi Racing team entries are maneuvered around ahead of the 2015 season, there’s one thing that needs to improve compared to the last two years: results at the start of the season.

Scott Dixon has delivered an incredible streak of eight years in a row finishing in the top three in points, but the last two years have seen him struggle a bit out of the gate in most races.

Tony Kanaan took a few races to get comfortable in the climate after switching from KV Racing Technology in 2013.

Charlie Kimball and Ryan Briscoe had decent first halves, but improved more in the second half of the year.

All told, CGR has played from behind the last couple years since the introduction of the Dallara DW12 in 2012. They’ve also had a number of changes to work though both last year and this one.

Last year, the team change at the start of the year was a switch from Honda to Chevrolet engines. On the driver side, Kanaan replaced the retired Dario Franchitti, who moved into a team advisor role, and Briscoe joined as the team re-added a fourth car after one year without it.

This year, the big changes are the adoption of the new Chevrolet aero kits, and a rotation of the team’s four engineers. Chris Simmons, Franchitti’s longtime engineer, moves to Dixon’s car as Eric Bretzman has been reassigned to Ganassi’s NASCAR program.

Kanaan’s longtime engineer Eric Cowdin will work with rookie Sage Karam. Meanwhile Todd Malloy joins the team from Bryan Herta Autosport, and will work with Kanaan.

For both Dixon and Kanaan, the chance to develop the new aero kits presents a revived opportunity for the first time since earlier in their careers in CART when they had a new chassis every year.

“It’s been split up between the teams. The Phoenix test is all we could go off,” Dixon said during the IndyCar media day in February. “The loads were higher, speeds faster. It’s a track we never ran at before. The track has gone through a change, different corner radius, banking, all that kind of stuff. Kind of hard for a reference.

“I think we understand the car is going to be more efficient on both sides of the fence with both manufacturers. Physically the cars are going to become more demanding.

“It’s kind of all we know at this point until we get to tracks and see comparative times, the loads in competitive environments rather than just fact checking.”

Kanaan liked his first laps in the car as well at Phoenix, early in the testing process.

“It’s hard to give a comparison because it was on a track that I hadn’t driven the new DW12 currently. But it felt good.

“We had a pretty good day there. We did maybe like 500 miles in one day. It was very reliable and it felt good.”

Dixon and Kanaan have both opened their 2015 campaigns with a win in the Rolex 24 at Daytona.

They hope to build off what have been difficult starts the last couple years.

Dixon has finished in the top five in four of the first 10 races, each of the last two years. Last year, Dixon ended the year with seven top-fives in eight races; the year before, it was seven in nine, including four wins.

In his first year with CGR, Kanaan only had one top-five finish in the first 11 races, before ending with five in the last seven.

Briscoe’s improvements were subtler. After six top-12 finishes in the opening 10 races, Briscoe matched that number in the last eight, including five top-10s.

Kimball finished each of the last nine races after posting three DNFs in the opening nine.

Karam replaces Briscoe in the team’s fourth car for this year. Right now, the Indy Lights champion is only confirmed for the first race of the season in St. Petersburg, but is expected to run further races.

Collectively, the quartet is working from a one team, one goal standpoint to start stronger this year.

“We obviously work very hard as a team. At Chip Ganassi Racing, it’s open book, and we try to push the envelope to advance all the cars,” Dixon said.

“Some days you have to understand maybe it’s not your day. But when it comes down to the wire, you’re going to fight your teammates as hard as anybody else. The last thing we get told is to make sure you don’t crash each other out of the race by Chip. That’s something we focus on. In the past we’ve done a pretty good job of that and hopefully that continues.”

“To have all the IndyCars under one roof, really working well together as a group and organization translates well,” Kimball added. “When you finish 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4, I don’t think the boss cares who wins the race as long as one of his cars wins and one of his cars wins second.

“I don’t think I’ve seen a bigger smile when Scott, Dario and I finished 1-2-3 on the podium at Pocono a couple years ago, so we’d like to replicate that again coming up.”

And ideally for the team, they’d want to do it earlier in the year rather than later.

Strong rebounds for Alex Palou, Chip Ganassi amid some disappointments in the Indy 500


INDIANAPOLIS – Alex Palou had not turned a wheel wrong the entire Month of May at the Indy 500 until Rinus VeeKay turned a wheel into the Chip Ganassi Racing pole-sitter leaving pit road on Lap 94.

“There is nothing I could have done there,” Palou told NBC Sports. “It’s OK, when it is my fault or the team’s fault because everybody makes mistakes. But when there is nothing, you could have done differently there, it feels bad and feels bad for the team.”

Marcus Ericsson was a master at utilizing the “Tail of the Dragon” move that breaks the draft of the car behind him in the closing laps to win last year’s Indianapolis 500. On Sunday, however, the last of three red flags in the final 16 laps of the race had the popular driver from Sweden breathing fire after Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden beat him at his own game on the final lap to win the Indianapolis 500.

Despite the two disappointments, team owner Chip Ganassi was seen on pit road fist-bumping a member on his four-car team in this year’s Indianapolis 500 after his drivers finished second, fourth, sixth and seventh in the tightly contested race.

Those are pretty good results, but at the Indianapolis 500, there is just one winner and 32 losers.

“There is only one winner, but it was a hell of a show,” three-time Indianapolis 500 winner and Chip Ganassi Racing consultant Dario Franchitti told NBC Sports. “Alex was very fast, and he got absolutely caught out in somebody else’s wreck. There was nothing he could have done, but he and the 10 car, great recovery.

“Great recovery by all four cars because at half distance, we were not looking very good.”

After 92 laps, the first caution flew for Sting Ray Robb of Dale Coyne Racing hitting the Turn 1 wall.

During pit stops on Lap 94, Palou had left his stall when the second-place car driven by VeeKay ran into him, putting Palou’s Honda into the wall. The car sustained a damaged front wing, but the Chip Ganassi crew was able to get him back in the race on the lead lap but in 28th position.

Palou ultimately would fight his way to a fourth-place finish in a race the popular Spaniard could have won. His displeasure with VeeKay, whom he sarcastically called “a legend” on his team radio after the incident, was evident.

“The benefit of being on pole is you can drive straight and avoid crashes, and he was able to crash us on the side on pit lane, which is pretty tough to do, but he managed it,” Palou told NBC Sports. “Hopefully next year we are not beside him. Hopefully, next year we have a little better luck.”

Palou started on the pole and led 36 laps, just three fewer than race leader Pato O’Ward of Arrow McLaren Racing.

“We started really well, was managing the fuel as we wanted, our car was pretty good,” Palou said. “Our car wasn’t great, we dropped to P4 or P5, but we still had some good stuff.

“On the pit stop, the 21 (VeeKay) managed to clip us. Nothing we could have done there. It was not my team’s fault or my fault.

“We had to drop to the end. I’m happy we made it back to P4. We needed 50 more laps to make it happen, but it could have been a lot worse after that contact.

“I learned a lot, running up front at the beginning and in mid-pack and then the back. I learned a lot.

“It feels amazing when you win it and not so good when things go wrong. We were a bit lucky with so many restarts at the end to make it back to P4 so I’m happy with that.”

Palou said the front wing had to be changed and the toe-in was a bit off, but he still had a fast car.

In fact, his Honda was the best car at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway all month. His pole-winning four lap average speed of 234.217 miles per hour around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a record for this fabled race.

Palou looked good throughout the race, before he had to scratch and claw and race his way back to the top-five after he restarted 28th.

In the Indianapolis 500, however, the best car doesn’t always win.

“It’s two years in a row that we were leading the race at the beginning and had to drop to last,” Palou said. “Maybe next year, we will start in the middle of the field and go on to win the race.

“I know he didn’t do it on purpose. It’s better to let that pass someday.”

Palou said the wild racing at the end was because the downforce package used in Sunday’s race means the drivers have to be aggressive. The front two cars can battle for the victory, but cars back in fourth or fifth place can’t help determine the outcome of the race.

That is when the “Tail of the Dragon” comes into the play.

Franchitti helped celebrate Ericsson’s win in 2022 with his “Tail of the Dragon” zigzag move – something he never had to do in any of his three Indianapolis 500 victories because they all finished under caution.

In 2023, however, IndyCar Race Control wants to make every attempt to finish the race under green, without going past the scheduled distance like NASCAR’s overtime rule.

Instead of extra laps, they stop the race with a red flag, to create a potential green-flag finish condition.

“You do what you have to do to win within the rules, and it’s within the rules, so you do it,” Franchitti said. “The race is 200 laps and there is a balance.

“Marcus did a great job on that restart and so did Josef. It was just the timing of who was where and that was it.

“If you knew it was going to go red, you would have hung back on the lap before.

“Brilliant job by the whole Ganassi organization because it wasn’t looking very good at half-distance.

“Full marks to Josef Newgarden and Team Penske.”

Franchitti is highly impressed by how well Ericsson works with CGR engineer Brad Goldberg and how close this combination came to winning the Indianapolis 500 two-years-in-a-row.

It would have been the first back-to-back Indy 500 winner since Helio Castroneves in 2001 and 2002.

“Oh, he’s a badass,” Franchitti said Ericsson. “He proved it last year. He is so calm all day. What more do you need? As a driver, he’s fast and so calm.”

Ericsson is typically in good spirits and jovial.

He was stern and direct on pit road after the race.

“I did everything right, I did an awesome restart, caught Josef off-guard and pulled away,” Ericsson said on pit lane. “It’s hard to pull away a full lap and he got me back.

“I’m mostly disappointed with the way he ended. I don’t think it was fair and safe to do that restart straight out of the pits on cold tires for everyone.

“To me, it was not a good way to end that race.

“Congrats to Josef. He didn’t do anything wrong. He is a worthy champion, but it shouldn’t have ended like that.”

Palou also didn’t understand the last restart, which was a one-start showdown.

“I know that we want to finish under green,” Palou said. “Maybe the last restart I did, I didn’t understand. It didn’t benefit the CGR team.

“I’m not very supportive of the last one, but anyway.”

Dixon called the red flags “a bit sketchy.”

“The Red Flags have become a theme to the end of the race, but sometimes they can catch you out,” Dixon said. “I know Marcus is frustrated with it.

“All we ask for is consistency. I think they will do better next time.

“It’s a tough race. People will do anything they can to win it and with how these reds fall, you have to be in the right place at the right time. The problem is when they throw a Red or don’t throw a Red dictates how the race will end.

“It’s a bloody hard race to win. Congrats to Josef Newgarden and to Team Penske.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500