News & Media

Jones central in Earnhardt Ganassi's makeover

February 08, 2012, Dave Rodman,

Virtually every aspect of NASCAR racing is high-pressure and that aspect alone makes it a difficult venue to enjoy. And when performance is below expectations, potential ill feelings are magnified.

In the offseason at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, co-owner Chip Ganassi made his feelings about 2011 plain, both verbally and by releasing three key competition executives immediately after the season ended.

Executive orders

After his drivers finished 21st (Juan Montoya) and 27th (Jamie McMurray) in points last year, it didn't take long for Chip Ganassi to clean house.

But on the eve of Speedweeks, it seems like the key changes have resulted in a lot of positive vibes. Former Roush Fenway Racing executive Max Jones, who most recently oversaw the merger of Yates Racing and Petty Enterprises in 2009-10 as president and general manager, became EGR's team manager at the start of the year.

In conjunction with new technical director John Probst, most recently with Red Bull Racing, Ganassi made changes for each of his drivers. Juan Montoya, who won at Watkins Glen in 2010, has a new crew chief, former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Chris Heroy. And Jamie McMurray, who won three major races in 2010 but like Montoya was winless and out of the Chase in 2011, has a new car chief, former Red Bull R&D head Randy Cox, who has plenty of crew chief experience.

But Jones is the key. Jones' experience ranges from a race- and championship-winning driver in sports cars, including the 1991 12 Hours of Sebring for owner Jack Roush, to a championship-winning manager of Roush's Truck and Nationwide series programs before a brief managerial stint in the IndyCar Series brought him back to NASCAR.

At a sports-car test at the beginning of the year, neither McMurray nor Montoya had heard Ganassi's public declaration that 2011 was "pathetic," But they had lived it, and they couldn't miss the new level of enthusiasm at their shop. Jones didn't go through it, so his new beginning has been measured one step at a time.

"For me, it's like a [totally] new season because I didn't have any closing on '11," Jones said recently. "I basically started on the second of January and I've just been going -- but I'm really optimistic and excited about being here.

"They've got a lot of good stuff and good people. They've got good cars and a totally good operation that Chip's organized. I see them all working together -- one big team running two cars. Everybody's pulling in the shop [and] the crew chiefs are working together with the engineering staff."

The most solid entity -- time-wise -- in the program is McMurray and his crew chief, Kevin Manion. In their first start together they won the 2010 Daytona 500. Later that year, they followed up with wins at Indianapolis and in the fall at Charlotte.

"Jamie and Kevin have a familiarity but they're working with new people around them, too," Jones said. "So it's busy. There's a lot going on, but it seems everybody's morale is upbeat and everybody's kind of excited, because they had a tough year last year.

"So everybody's pumped up about the changes and not doing the same things they did last year."

Ganassi made sure of that when he released three veterans: competition director Steve Hmiel, team manager Tony Glover and head engineer Ed Nathman. In the midst of those profound changes, Jones said he came in treading lightly and was pleasantly surprised at his welcome.

"Walking in [the biggest surprise] was the warm welcome I got from everybody," Jones said. "When you're a new guy walking into a place, everybody's sizing you up and ... I've only done that a couple times, because I haven't worked at very many places.

"But everybody came up to me saying, 'We're glad you're here.' ... I don't even know if they knew who I was. So for me, everybody's open to ideas ... everybody wants to change, they want to do better."

To Jones, there's no reason that won't occur. Ganassi has won multiple championships in IndyCar and the Grand-Am Rolex Series' Daytona Prototype class. So far, the success hasn't successfully transferred to the NASCAR wing in any great amount.

Jones hopes he can tie things together.

"They know what they did in '10 so they want to turn things around -- and they know they're capable of it," Jones said. "The drivers are definitely capable and Chip provides them [everything they need]. It's a great organization."

Initially, with all the respective team managers being heavily involved in their own season buildups, Jones' immediate interaction with them was minimal. But he kept coming back to the linchpin of everything, Ganassi.

"The thing is, Chip's a racer and he wins in his IndyCar program and he wins in his sports-car program," Jones said. "So he wants to win [in NASCAR]. With my experience, when Chip and I have our conversations about how things are, it's not foreign to me -- how they do it.

"And his goal is to get this program on the same page, winning races and winning championships, like his other programs. I think I have an understanding of that because I've been there."

EGR has done plenty of testing leading up to 2012, but a hectic Daytona test, in particular, has the entire organization enthused about the coming year.

"Everybody's pretty upbeat about how the cars ran and performed," Jones said in the immediate aftermath of the early January test. "It's not necessarily just speed -- though I think we had good speed. With their methodology, they checked off the items they wanted to try and they A-B'ed some things and they found some speed and they found a lot of things that wasn't speed.

"So I think, maybe it was a different approach to maybe what they've done in the past and it is a lot different to what you'd do in the old days -- changing bodies around and changing cars. But all in all it was a good session."

In the end, Jones hopes he can bring the pieces together into one, well-pointed and effective machine.

"I don't know that I can improve what went on here before -- that's not my place," Jones said. "I think what I'm gonna bring -- it's what I've done every place I've been, is good communication. Trying to make sure everyone's working on the same level and trying to make sure that everybody's working together.

"If somebody needs some help, I'll get them some help. If a department, or a crew chief feels like they're not getting what they need, I feel like I can go get them what they need. That was one of my deals, in talking to Chip [and he agreed]."

Jones went back to his initial assessment of what drives Ganassi, which the owner readily agrees is the case, right to his core.

"He's a racer and he's willing to do whatever it takes to win these races," Jones said of Ganassi. "If you look at the facility and the people that he's hired, and the way that he's approached all of his motorsports for all of these years, that's the way he's done it.

"I feel like I'm just kind of the facilitator to make sure everybody has the tools. We don't want to go to a race or a test and come back and say 'we would have done better if we had this or that.' That's really not an option and I think that's where I can help the guys here.

"I'm not an engineer and I'm not a crew chief. But I feel like I can keep the guys all pointed in the same direction."