For Ganassi, change runs deeper than team name
January 28, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
Rookie Kyle Larson helps bring fresh perspective, excitement
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- In the immortal, soulful lyrics of legendary R&B singer Sam Cooke, "a change is gonna come, oh yes it will."
For Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, it already has.
Notice anything different?
Following the late-2008 merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the organization spent the past five years under the title of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Over the offseason, however, the "Earnhardt" portion of the title disappeared and minority owner Felix Sabates had his name re-included in both the outfit's title and logo -- the latter of which appeared to genuinely delight the motorsports tycoon.
Be it the logo, the team restructure that included a crew chief change for its flagship No. 1 McDonald's/Cessna Chevrolet and a driver change in the team's No. 42 Target Chevrolet -- or just the fact that Speedweeks start in just over two weeks -- the co-owner is rejuvenated and invigorated for the upcoming 2014 campaign.
Having one of the most buzz-worthy young drivers in his stable doesn't hurt.
"A lot of the weekends last year, we'd drop Jamie (McMurray) off, the airplane would come back and pick me up and I'd go to Florida or I'd go to the Bahamas or go somewhere," said Sabates, who partnered with Chip Ganassi in 2001. "This year, I've booked 28 races, which is the most races I've been on since the year 2000.
"I don't want to miss the first opportunity to see the kid get to Victory Lane. I don't want to be down in Florida playing golf with a bunch of idiots."
The "kid" he refers to is Kyle Larson, who replaces 2007 Sunoco Rookie of the Year and former Indianapolis 500 winner Juan Pablo Montoya. The 21-year-old's inclusion is just one of a handful of transitions that CGR has in store for 2014. However, Sabates insists the day-to-day operations remain the same.
"It's Chip and I," Sabates said. "We had a long-term contract and we fulfilled our contract. It was nothing. There wasn't even a discussion, it was just the way it's going to be and we did it. Nothing changes."
The other party involved in the contract was, of course, Teresa Earnhardt -- the widow of the late Dale Earnhardt.
Now that things are in place for the immediate future and beyond at CGR, it should allow the team to move forward in a positive direction after a 2013 campaign that, while it had its highs -- Jamie McMurray's emotional Victory Lane celebration this past fall at Talladega comes to mind -- it certainly had its share of lows, as well.
"When I look back at last year, one thing that we haven't really talked about is our organization. Last year was challenging for different reasons," said McMurray, who has a new crew chief after Keith Rodden replaced Kevin 'Bono' Manion. "One is because one of the drivers knew that he was leaving in August, or so, at the end of the year and you know Bono, we obviously made a change at crew chief. So we're going through this transition of one driver leaving and a crew chief leaving. This sport's hard enough when everything is going right, but when you add some of that in, it makes it even more challenging.
"We have been through a lot of changes with some management and drivers and I feel like we're in the best place that this organization has been in since I've been a part of the team."
McMurray's claim shows enough of the backstory that the changes were necessary, especially considering Montoya -- one of the most decorated drivers on the planet -- is being replaced by a rookie who has just four Sprint Cup Series starts.
That said, No. 42 crew chief Chris Heroy knows he's got a gem on his hands that could legitimately compete in his rookie season.
"Tony Stewart won multiple races his rookie year. Jimmie (Johnson) won multiple races his rookie year. This kid is no different," said Heroy, who led the No. 42 team to 10 top-10 finishes in two years with Montoya. "(Larson) reminds me a lot of the guys back at Hendrick (Motorsports). He's got an honesty about him. He's a pretty unique kid, though. He's different in a lot of different ways."
The differences go beyond Larson's racing prowess. Last year, he became the first NASCAR Drive for Diversity participant to win the Sunoco Rookie of the Year honor in a national series after finishing eighth in the NASCAR Nationwide Series points. Larson was also the first D4D graduate to win a national series race, which he accomplished at Rockingham Speedway in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
"His (Drive for Diversity involvement) is absolutely an amazing opportunity for the Asian-American community and he's happy to represent that and bring that into our sport," Heroy said of Larson, whose mother is of Japanese-American descent. "We're excited about that opportunity and to celebrate and maximize that throughout the year."
The No. 42 team is keeping expectations for 2014 in check, however. The Rockingham win is Larson's only victory in a NASCAR national series event, and plenty of growing pains are expected. Still, it's not Heroy's toughest assignment to date.
"I've worked with younger," Heroy said. "I was with Kyle (Busch) when he came in in '05. There's plenty of growing pains, but (Larson) has got his confidence. He's a centered person. I'm not worried about it. It's our job to maintain the atmosphere around him and I think staying level-headed, not too high, not too low and staying reasonable with our expectations and never compromising our end goals. We can surround him with an environment that will help with that."
Overall, there's a feeling that CGR expects to put two cars in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup this season, something the organization has yet to do.
It's been a long time coming, but a change is gonna come.
Oh, yes it has.