- John Oreovicz, Autos, Open-Wheel
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Between 1994 and 2001, Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing combined to capture seven of eight championships in the CART-sanctioned Champ Car series.
These days, two of the biggest names in American open-wheel racing do business in the Indy Racing League, and one of them will take the IRL IndyCar Series crown home from Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday evening.
Surprisingly, this is really the first time that the Penske and Ganassi drivers have engaged in a season-long battle for a championship.
The Penske team's performance was hurt in the late '90s through its reliance on uncompetitive engines and tires. When Penske began using the Reynard-Honda-Firestone combination with which Ganassi drivers Jimmy Vasser, Alex Zanardi and Juan Montoya won the 1996-99 CART titles, it resulted in two consecutive championships for Gil de Ferran.
The man credited with the so-called renaissance of Team Penske and it's subsequent move into the IRL is 38-year old Indianapolis native Tim Cindric. A lifelong motorsport man, Cindric attended Pike High School and was a basketball star for Rose Hulman Institute of Technology.
Cindric worked for Bobby Rahal's CART team from 1993 to '99 before being given an unprecedented amount of control over Roger Penske's open-wheel operation. Since taking over as President of Penske Racing, Cindric has overseen the two CART championships and four Indianapolis 500 victories (bringing Penske Racing's total to a record 14), but the IRL crown has proved elusive.
This year, the championship is Penske's to lose, because drivers Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. enter this weekend's IndyCar Series finale at Chicagoland Speedway with a relatively comfortable 20-point cushion over Ganassi's Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon. The Ganassi boys, with Dixon trailing Wheldon by two points, have to win on Sunday, whereas the Penske pilots can run conservatively in the top five and whichever one crosses the line first (Castroneves leads Hornish by just one point) will emerge as the series champion.
Cindric and his Ganassi Racing counterpart, Managing Director Mike Hull, recently discussed the classic season-long duel their teams have waged, along with their prospects for this weekend's climactic 300-miler (ABC, 1:30 p.m. ET).
"We're looking at two things," Cindric said. "One is making sure we win as a team, and the other is to sort out which one of the two is going to be the guy.
"Both the guys we have deserve to come out on top," he added. "We don't have to be as aggressive as maybe Mike's guys do to be sure that we finish in a certain spot because where they finish really dictates where we need to finish. It's just going to be a matter of who has the best day in Chicago."
Hull, also an Indianapolis native, joined Ganassi's CART team in 1992 and took over from Tom Anderson as the man in charge when Anderson left to form Fernandez Racing in 2002. He said his biggest hope is that the championship contenders have a clean fight on Sunday.
"We'll race hard and I'm sure we'll race with the Penske guys all the way to the end of the race like we've done on these larger ovals all year," Hull said. "The one thing we want to do is race in Chicago like we've raced all year long. I think the racing between the two teams for the entire season has been very fair, very above-board, and representative of what the Indy Racing League is all about."
IRL races on mile-and-a-half tracks are always tense affairs, and the Chicagoland event promises to be even more so with the top four positions in the championship -- and significant differences in prize money -- on the line.
"It's going to be a long race for sure, at least from where I sit," noted Cindric. "The best we can do is just try to give the drivers a reminder of the big picture if they get the red mist in front of them on Lap 20 and think it's Lap 200.
"They're big boys," he continued. "I told Helio and Sam that I hope they race each other as clean as they did when they weren't teammates, referring to when they were pretty much wheel-to-wheel at Texas in 2002 for the last 20 or 30 laps."
Added Hull: "We've got to get to the end. At the end of the race, you just can't have a mark on your car."
In fact, Cindric said his biggest worry is that another driver from outside the Ganassi team will disrupt one of the Penske driver's races.
"We know the Target guys and our guys have proven they can race clean amongst each other," he said. "Some of the other guys who are desperate for success have nothing to lose -- in the last few laps of the Sonoma race, Vitor Meira was certainly a man on a mission to pass as many cars as he could.
"We had to let him go, which really isn't in our racing blood. But sometimes it's a choice of letting him go or taking a bigger risk and not making it around to the other side. You take different chances in different situations."
If there's a common theme between the two superteams, it's that this weekend is business as usual.
"We know we have to win with one guy or the other to have the chance to win the championship," Hull said. "But we race to win every week.
"The Marlboro guys have done a fantastic job because obviously they're up on us in the points and they deserve a lot of recognition for what they have accomplished," he added. "We're just trying to trump them a little bit by winning the championship."
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.