Commentary

Ganassi serves notice: EGR a contender

Updated: May 6, 2010, 11:58 AM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Chip Ganassi's head dropped.

Since July 2008 the co-owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing had taken personally the use of the word "disarray" to describe his Sprint Cup organization -- then Chip Ganassi Racing -- after 71 employees were fired and the car of Dario Franchitti was shut down.

Now his good friend and co-owner, Felix Sabates, was selling him out.

"That wasn't personal," Sabates said Monday. "That was factual."

Finally, vindication.

Ganassi, after a few seconds of cringing, forced a smile. He'll never admit my choice of words was accurate in '08, but he wasn't going to let anything spoil this day.

He had vindicated himself. His driver, Jamie McMurray, was the Daytona 500 champion.

[+] EnlargeChip Ganassi
AP Photo/John RaouxChip Ganassi, left, hoists the owner's trophy Sunday after his driver Jamie McMurray won the 52nd Daytona 500.

You could see it in his eyes. You could feel it in the way he proudly wore the gaudy black leather jacket given to the winning driver, crew chief and owner of the 500. You could hear it in his voice.

Nothing deterred his mood, not even the reporter who asked if Sunday showed nice guys can finish first, pausing for a few seconds and adding, "In the case of Jamie?"

"Next question," the 51-year-old Ganassi said with a laugh, the hard shell one would expect from a Pittsburgh native seemingly softening.

It was as though the years of persecution because his Cup organization hadn't reached the high level of his open-wheel teams had been lifted.

In case you don't know, Ganassi's IndyCar team has won the Indianapolis 500 and last season captured a second straight series championship with a 1-2 finish by Franchitti and Scott Dixon.

His CART team won four straight championships from 1996 to 1999 and the 1999 Indianapolis 500 with current Cup driver Juan Pablo Montoya. His Grand-Am team has won the Rolex 24 multiple times.

Until Sunday his biggest accomplishment in Cup was putting Montoya in the 2009 Chase.

"That's a testament to the guys back at the shop," Ganassi said as he described how it felt to see his Cup team rise to another level. "They never read the ESPN stuff. They never believed it. It wasn't true. They never believed all the naysayers.

"I like to think we just stayed on plan and didn't listen to all the peripheral bulls--- that was going on."

As we jokingly agreed before parting on Monday, Disarray-gate is over. And as Sabates so duly noted, it never was personal. There never was any question that Ganassi was a good -- if not great -- owner.

It was just hard to understand why the successes in other racing leagues didn't transfer to NASCAR.

Maybe Sunday's win was the beginning of that. The foundation certainly appears in place. Montoya was a serious title contender through five of last year's 10 Chase races. There's no reason to think he won't be again.

McMurray doesn't have Montoya-like credentials, but he came close to making the Chase before taking a four-year hiatus at Roush Fenway Racing, and the 500 win could give him the confidence to take his game to a new level.

Ganassi won't take much of the credit. He'll do as he did in the above quotation, as well as last month at the media tour, and credit the guys in the trenches, the ones he says never get enough attention.

But Ganassi deserves his due. One could argue he ranks with the greatest motorsports owners of all time. Rick Hendrick may have won four straight Cup championships with Jimmie Johnson and nine of the past 15, but he hasn't won the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500 and Rolex 24.

Ganassi has. Nobody else but Roger Penske has.

"I got a book a year or two ago of all the wins, and it's incredible to see all the races he's won," McMurray said. "He's not wanting me to compliment him now, but it's amazing everything he's won.

"He's a great team owner and understands what makes each driver tick. Juan is not me. Different attitudes. And Chip knows how to treat Juan and me. He knows how to make each driver motivated. It says a lot about him."

A few seats away Ganassi sat with his head down again, almost embarrassed by the attention.

He stayed in that position as Sabates described him.

"We've been together almost 10 years and had one argument," Sabates said. "That's pretty damn remarkable. Chip's a very strong-willed person, and so am I. We work things out and talk without getting mad at each other. The best way to describe it is Chip doesn't take things personally."

Unless you insult his organization. Then he takes it real personally, and his passion flows. Being on the other end of the criticism is like being Sarah Palin at the Democratic Convention.

Not comfortable.

It was a little awkward when Ganassi was reminded of that during Monday's champion breakfast.

"You know, at the end of the day you lit the fire," he said, staring at me across the table with a much friendlier look than the one he gave in a behind-the-hauler chat in 2008. "It's all you."

It would be nice if that were true, and I could claim a share of the $1.5 million given to the 500 winner, but it's really all about Ganassi. He had the courage and fortitude to put his ego aside and merge with Dale Earnhardt Inc. a year ago to survive the economic crunch.

He held the line during all the layoffs, understanding the model of NASCAR was changing. He was the one who convinced sponsor Bass Pro Shop to go with McMurray even though executives weren't convinced he fit their image.

"I get to think sometimes you guys in the media don't think those teams [outside four-car teams of Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway] are capable, and that's not true," Ganassi said. "There are lots of teams that are capable.

"Maybe the model isn't a massive team."

Whatever the model, you can't take anything away from what Ganassi has accomplished in motorsports.

You definitely can't take away what he did Sunday.

"I love this business," Ganassi said. "I live for this business every day. I love racing. I love being involved in it. I enjoy being here this morning and answering all the questions.

"I'm going to go home this afternoon and get a little rest and be back in racing tomorrow morning. ... That's what makes me tick."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter