Photo courtesy of IMSA

Ganassi set to battle for title, to conclude epic Ford GT debut year

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Chip Ganassi Racing Teams have made winning championships in the Verizon IndyCar Series a habit, with 11 achieved since 1996. The team has also secured five GRAND-AM Rolex Series Daytona Prototype titles in the prior era of North American sports car racing before the merger and the eventual launch of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2014.

What would be a new accomplishment for Ganassi in 2016 would be a GT Le Mans class title, in a year when the team’s new jet fighters in wheels – the new Ford GTs – are up against the established heavyweights from Corvette, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, albeit the latter two manufacturers also debuting new cars this year.

It’s been a learning year for Ganassi, long a standard bearer in the DP ranks but new to the GTLM scene this year.

The team’s already achieved arguably the biggest race win of the year with the 24 Hours of Le Mans triumph and now are setting their sights on winning the GTLM crown, and toppling the proverbial standard bearer in GT this millennium – Corvette Racing – in order to do so.

Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull explained going into Sunday’s Continental Tire Road Race Showcase that the culture of winning the team has instilled has been a daily motivating factor in the team’s maiden GTLM season, to achieve the success they have up to this point.

“I think we have a roomful of people here at Woodland Dr. in Indianapolis who have either by example, or by doing, have won races together, and work very unselfishly,” Hull told NBC Sports. “You try to get the most of today. We want to win every day. But we want to win with humility, and lose with dignity. That’s really what we’re all about.

“We have five carnivorous OEMs. Each defines their own technical culture with their cars, and their own automobiles. There’s so much passion from fans for cars. We underestimated that, perhaps.

“And to be honest with you, we’re still learning about the racing in this category. We’re learning about our car, our drivers, our people, and everything it takes. The racing is slightly different, yes, but it always is. You study the rules and make the best decisions you can.

“I’m not sure if people expected us to have early success or not. But we’ve practiced doing new things for a while. This is how people pull together in our building to get the most from our product.”

Asked who Hull and Ganassi have viewed as the target and the best team to learn from and he made no hesitation: it’s Corvette Racing.

“I would give a lot of credit to the Corvette Racing team,” Hull explained. “Just like when we came into IRL from CART, we studied the best people in the category. You watch how they race, how they practice, qualify, and what is their racecraft. At this point I don’t know if we’re a mirror image, but I have high respect for how they manage their process.”

Perhaps it’s fitting then, that it’s a Corvette versus Ford showdown that began with Sunday’s race at Road America and will continue for the final three races of the year later this month at Virginia International Raceway, then in September at Circuit of The Americas and in October at Road Atlanta.

At Road America, Ford looked poised to win its fourth IMSA race of the year with the No. 67 Ford GT pairing of Richard Westbrook and Ryan Briscoe.

But apparent turbo issues on the final two laps left Westbrook needing to defend from a snarling pack behind him, and ultimately losing the lead on the final lap to Tommy Milner in the No. 4 Corvette.

It was a seismic shift in the championship that saw the No. 4 car, which was sixth in class not much earlier, extend its points lead from 10 to 13 on a day when the two cars could have left tied had the No. 67 won and the No. 4 ended sixth.

Hull said the team wouldn’t be in championship-contending position if not for the drivers that were selected. Briscoe and Joey Hand are Ganassi veterans while Westbrook and Dirk Mueller have been easy plug-and-play solutions.

“Chip Ganassi Racing is a big fan of talent that knows how to win,” Hull said. “And those four drivers possess all those attributes. We don’t have to teach them how to win races.

“Of course they were not the only ones we talked to, certainly. This time 12 months ago, my goodness, there was a line out the door. I would have liked to hire every one of them, to be honest with you.

“But they all drive the car for their teammates. We’ve had unselfish teammates in DP racing and we do now here. That then transfers directly to everyone who works on the cars, our two entries and one team of people.”

Hand and Mueller have been perhaps unlucky to not have won in IMSA this year, although they combined with Sebastien Bourdais to win at Le Mans – and it’s a given how much that triumph means not just to them, but to Ford and Ganassi’s programs.

For Hand, despite the lack of IMSA wins, the frustration isn’t there because it hasn’t been for a lack of pace – just a lack of luck.

“It was a great morale booster for the other car to win at Laguna,” Hand told NBC Sports. “And that momentum carried us into Le Mans. That shows what a team effort it is.

“I think you saw at Laguna in the 66, we had the pace. They had the strategy. Same thing at Mosport where we were in the mix in the 66, then the 67 had the alternate strategy and it worked. I don’t feel bad, because we’re in the mix. It’s one thing if you lose and you’re slow. But now, we’ve been in contention a lot this year.”

And for Hand, coming back to GT after several years in DPs hasn’t been that difficult an adjustment period. The competition remains fierce; so too does his desire to win.

“It’s not a lot different. The differences are subtle,” he said. “You’re always careful in traffic, between the GTD cars we go by and the PCs who don’t pass you as fast.

“But in GT, it’s pro/pro with these really good manufacturers, so you have a proper dogfight every race. That’s why we love this class, and that’s why we’re in it.

“The GT class is still the one to watch.”

Attention NASCAR teams: IMSA drivers available for Daytona!

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NASCAR will be making its debut on the Daytona International Speedway road course next month, and there’s a big fan who’d like to join the historic weekend.

This fan actually has impressive credentials, too — a few thousand laps around the 12-turn, 3.56-mile layout that annually plays host to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in January.

In 2014, the winning GTLM team in the sports car endurance classic included IMSA Porsche driver Nick Tandy, who rabidly has followed NASCAR for more than 30 years since growing up in England.

So why not try racing NASCAR? Especially because Tandy has the weekend of Aug. 14-16 free.

He’s not picky, either — offering up his services on Twitter (as well as those of Porsche teammate Earl Bamber) for an ARCA, Xfinity, trucks or Cup ride.

Tandy’s affinity for American stock-car racing runs deep.

His first trip to the World Center of Racing was as a fan attending the 50th running of the Daytona 500 on Feb. 17, 2008. During Rolex testing in January, Tandy, 35, said he hadn’t missed a Cup race on TV in 15 years.

Among his favorite NASCAR drivers: the Earnhardts, Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch. When IMSA ran the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course in 2014, Tandy stayed a few extra days at the Brickyard and bought Kyle Busch gear for himself and his children.

He briefly took the stage during a NASCAR weekend last October. After IMSA’s season finale at Road Atlanta, Tandy made a few demonstration laps and a burnout in his No. 911 Porsche before the Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He also has some experience in stock cars, having raced Modified-type grass-roots series on England’s quarter-mile short tracks.

Couple that with a Daytona road course record that includes two consecutive podium class finishes (including last Saturday) and a sports car resume with 13 IMSA victories and an overall win in the 2015 24 Hours of Le Mans … and maybe a NASCAR team should take a look.

And Tandy isn’t the only IMSA driver who likely would be available.

Corvette driver Jordan Taylor, who won the 2017 Rolex 24 overall title with Jeff Gordon as a teammate (and the inspiration for his Rodney Sandstrom persona), also tweeted his availability for the weekend on the high banks.

Sports car veteran Andy Lally, a GTD driver with multiple class wins in the Rolex 24 as well as 38 Cup starts (he was the 2011 rookie of the season in NASCAR’s premier series), also hung out his shingle.

There also is AIM Vasser Sullivan’s Jack Hawksworth (who just won at Daytona last Saturday), the Englishman who teamed with Kyle Busch at the Rolex 24 in January and made an Xfinity start at Mid-Ohio last year with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Many sports car drivers (such as Taylor) already live in Florida, and many are hunkering down in the Sunshine State with IMSA returning to action at Daytona last week and Sebring International Raceway next week. Because of COVID-19-related travel concerns and restrictions, several IMSA stars who live outside the country are riding out the pandemic within a few hours of Daytona with nothing to do.

Why not a weekend at the World Center of Racing?

Over the years, scads of “road-course ringers” (including some Formula One veterans) have tried their hands in stock cars at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International.

How about considering the many sports car drivers who already have reached victory lane at Daytona by making a few right-hand turns, too?