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Ganassi teams dominating open-wheel series

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

By MIKE HARRIS

AP Auto Racing Writer

Even Chip Ganassi is awed by the way his IndyCar and Grand-Am teams have started the season.

"It is nothing short of phenomenal," the team owner said last week in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Between the two open-wheel circuits, his teams have won eight of 12 races in 2008, including the Daytona 24-hours sports car race -- for an unprecedented third straight time -- and the Indianapolis 500. Both the IndyCar team, with Indy winner Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon, and Grand-Am, with Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas, are leading their respective points standings.

"You can get lost in the numbers," Ganassi said. "It's interesting. Dixon's led 50 percent of all laps run this year, and the team has led 57 percent. The Grand-Am cars have led 33 percent of the laps. That's kind of cool."

It isn't the first time that a Ganassi team has shown this kind of dominance.

During his time in the now-defunct CART series, Ganassi's team steamrolled to an unprecedented four straight championships from 1996-99 with drivers Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi, twice, and Juan Pablo Montoya, who also gave the owner an Indy 500 win in 2000.

That powerhouse team did more than win races and championships, though. It also taught the Ganassi operation how to win races and championships.

"(Before that) our strategy was unproven," Ganassi said. "We were aimlessly hunting in the woods for a direction.

"I think, now, eight or so years later, it is more or less a coming together of some people that we've been trying to preach that (strategy) to, and they've all sort of come together at the same time."

Both of Ganassi's open-wheel programs are run out of his Indianapolis race shop, overseen by managing director Mike Hull.

Hull said the catalyst for this year's fast start by both teams was one of the biggest disappointments in Ganassi's racing history: Dixon losing the IndyCar Series championship when he ran out of fuel on the last lap of the 2007 season-finale at Chicagoland Speedway.

"A few days after Chicago ... we got together as a group, and a group means all the guys that work on the cars," Hull said. "They all decided to dedicate themselves to working in every area to improve our product.

"And I think that has a lot to do with the momentum that has been created since the very first race of the year, if not from the open tests at the beginning of the year. Our guys have always done an extremely good job of supporting each other, but I think they've taken that to another level with intensity and focus, and I think that's the reason."

That support extended to the Grand-Am sports car program, with everyone at the Indy shop pitching in to prepare the cars for the Daytona race in January.

Ganassi pointed out that the Grand-Am program, which began in 2004, was born because he and other team officials determined that the IndyCar team had little to do for part of the year in the days when its schedule ran only from April to September.

"You had a big gap there," Ganassi said. "We had a huge group of very, very talented people and they were sort of idle for a long time of the year. It's not that way today but, at the time, they were idle for a while."

Everyone pitched in to get ready for the 24-hour race, one of the most prestigious endurance events in the world.

"We thought it would be a great tuneup for the IndyCar season, and we found that we have some talented racing people who maybe they could learn some new tricks in a new series," Ganassi added. "We knew we could get the season started well, and it was just a question of could we compete on an annual basis for the championship there."

They have already won two Grand-Am titles and appear well on the way to a third.

The only glaring weakness in Ganassi's racing empire has been his NASCAR Sprint Cup team, which began competition in 2001 and has racked up only six of his 97 overall victories -- just one since 2002. Sterling Marlin was third in the Cup points in 2002, but that's the only top-10 finish for the team, which has yet to place a driver in NASCAR's four-year-old Chase for the championship.

Things haven't been any better this year, with no wins and Montoya, who left Formula One late in 2006 to drive for Ganassi's stock car team, the best of his three drivers at 22nd in the season standings.

But Ganassi has been around racing long enough to know things can turn around quickly.

"We feel like we are a better team than the standings indicate," he said. "We're able to do whatever it takes to get us better, and we expect to be running better.

"I can't help that guys get caught up in crashes, but, again, we have a strategy there," Ganassi added. "The simple thing would be to change the strategy, but we're staying with our strategy down there. We want people who want to work that strategy."

And Ganassi insists he always looks ahead, not behind.

"The point is that we're in the business to win races and win championships," he said. "The way you win championships is through consistent performances week in and week out. It's our job to build a team to have consistent performance, and race wins will come along and championships will come along with those race wins.

"It's about working with the people. The fun I get out of it is putting the group of people together and making it happen. ... I have a love for the sport, but I'm not so shallow to think that if I win one race or one championship I'm going to be satisfied with my racing career. Winning is certainly more fun than losing, but losing is part of winning."



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