When your team wins NASCAR's Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400, the Indy 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series, and dominates the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series – all in one year – then it's safe to say that a) your season was a success, and b) you're Chip Ganassi. We caught up with him a few days after the IndyCar finale in Homestead.
Your best year in racing?
Oh yeah. And the nice thing is, all six drivers on our team have won a race this year. Obviously, we work hard in Grand-Am. Regarding the IndyCar Series, I knew we'd be racing Penske for the championship, although I was surprised it was Will Power and not [Ryan] Briscoe or Helio [Castroneves]. Then, of course, in NASCAR we won the big races. We've had a great year and I wouldn't trade it for anything, but we still have mountains to climb, you know. Second place in the Daytona 24 Hours didn't look too bad, but it stings now!
Focusing on IndyCar first, something I've noticed through the years, is that your team has mastered either sandbagging or overnight turnarounds. Just this year, I'm thinking of Kansas, where Briscoe does that incredible pole that none of his rivals can understand and yet, come race day, the Ganassi cars dominate. Then at Indy, Penske looks like it's got the edge all month, but on race day, the green flags wave and Dario's gone. And Homestead, Penske's ahead in the Monday test and Friday morning practice, but from qualifying onward, Ganassi is dominant. What is it that you've built into your team where you can outfox everyone – even Penske?
We just never give up. Do we show them everything we have at every moment of the day? No. I don't want to give away any speed secrets, but yeah, we keep an eye on what they do, as I'm sure they keep an eye on us. We're in that rarefied air of racing where so many tiny engineering things make a huge difference, relative to the car's fuel load, relative to the beginning of a run or the end of a run, new tires or used tires, and so on. You've got a lot of factors there and both our team and Penske are down to the short strokes on these cars.
How much of those mid-weekend performance gains are down to your drivers' feedback or do the gains primarily come from engineering?
I think it's a combination. It takes every bit of everything from everybody to run like we're running. I don't want to take anything away from the drivers, because Dario's input, for example, is up there with the best but, believe me, it takes a combination of that and the engineers to get here.
Despite being 37, Dario seems as good as he's ever been.
Yeah, he is. People had him written off years ago, and I think he's just in the sweet spot of his career right now. I think he and Scott are fast, mature guys and veteran drivers. They know the IndyCar business up, down, left and right.
After Sonoma, when Power had a 59-point lead in the championship, did you honestly believe that you'd win it?
No question. We feel we can absolutely do it until we absolutely can't.
Chicago looked like a turning point: Penske's No. 12 crew screwed up Power's final stop as your team gave Dario a short, fuel-only stop. Did you wonder why no one else chose to go the same way, especially on a track where it's all about downforce rather than tire grip?
Yeah, I ask myself that question a lot. One day they'll all be doing that and I'll be an old man, wondering why they did that! We all work with the information we have at the time and we try to do the best we can with it.
How will Scott respond to having Dario come back from NASCAR and twice beat him to the title? Ganassi has been his home for so many years now.
Oh, I don't think it fazes him. It just makes the fire burn inside him even more. Not a race goes by where those drivers don't learn from each other. If you think you've learned it all, you're going to be out of the sport pretty quick. And both Dario and Scott are good at keeping an open mind about learning new tricks and things. Scott's only 30, so I think there are more titles in him.
On to NASCAR: Is winning the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 a bigger deal than making the Chase?
Well, if you ask someone, “Who's leading the points in NASCAR?” and “Who won the Daytona 500?” they'd have an easier time answering the second question. I'm not saying the Chase isn't a big deal, but the Daytona 500 is a big event in and out of NASCAR. The only thing better than nailing Daytona and the Brickyard would be winning the Sprint Cup. We expected Jamie McMurray to be a major asset but we'd have been arrogant to expect him to win those two races!
The Watkins Glen win proved Juan Montoya has the road courses nailed, but he's run so strong on so many ovals now, do you think his first oval victory is close?
Yeah; he's qualified in the top 10 for something like 16 races in a row or some crazy number. So that's really nice. He's getting them figured out.
Given the struggles of Sam Hornish and Scott Speed, other late open-wheel converts, does that remind you and Juan that progress is being made?
I'm glad someone else notices that. Yeah, I'm fine with Juan's progress.
So what prevented Juan from making the Chase this year?
Not scoring enough points! But seriously, that really is what it comes down to. The DNFs hurt. He's the highest car in the points with the number of DNFs he's got, so that says something.
Is Earnhardt Ganassi Racing closing the gap to Hendrick Motorsport? There have certainly been times this year where your Chevys have looked faster than the Chevys of Stewart-Haas and they're like a semi-Hendrick operation.
Yeah, I think plenty of races we've run better than their entire team, so I think we've closed that gap. It's just a matter of being up front at the end of races – and fewer DNFs.
OK, Grand-Am. No offense, but I expected a transition period when you switched from Lexus to BMW engines, but instead you set a new record for number of wins in a season. Did your team exceed your expectations?
Well, that's a solid team which has been together for quite a while. There's a lot of speed to be found in this business when you have a championship-caliber team that stays together for a long time. Continuity is a big factor in success in racing.
Mike Hull [Chip Ganassi Racing team president] has said the work you did on the Riley chassis and shocks and dampers when you were with Lexus meant that once you got the BMW engine, boom, you were off. Is there a comparison there to when you ran Toyota engines in IndyCar and had to find every last bit from the chassis to keep up with Honda-powered teams?
Yeah, there are a lot of parallels there, in fact. We worked so hard to get our car working well that when we got the best engine in it, we took off.
When Grand-Am slung ballast at you, your dominance appeared to step up. Was there sweet vindication in that?
At the time, a lot of our competitors were taking care of themselves so we won some races there that our competitors fell out of. I remember at the second Daytona race, they were all spinning in front of us or crashing in the pit lane. You don't get nine wins by accident, but certainly in a couple of those, luck was on our side.
Scott Pruett has been the king of Grand-Am forever. How do you feel Memo Rojas is measuring up?
Oh, Memo's certainly getting better every year. I think this season proved that he's as fast Scott, if not faster. I think this was Memo's year to step out and establish himself as a number one driver, and he was very good.
Why are you in Grand-Am? Other than the Rolex 24, the series doesn't attract a lot of attention even though the racing is often fantastic.
When we got into it, the IRL was pretty much an oval series and NASCAR was obviously an oval series and yet a lot of people on our team have road racing backgrounds. That's the reason we got into the thing in the first place – to keep ourselves tuned up for road racing. That has sort of come full circle now and we're kind of an established team there.
I think sometimes your achievements in that series get forgotten because it's not high profile enough, so I wondered if you're hurt that some of your successes are overlooked.
Ha! You know, I'm not in racing because I'm looking for a high profile! I just like the sport, I like the racing, and I like a lot of other aspects of it. I wouldn't say I make my decisions about one series or another because of my profile.
Targets for 2011 (no pun intended)?
Same again but adding the Rolex 24 and both NASCAR cars making the Chase!