Like a winner: Chip Ganassi’s two-decade run in NASCAR leaves lasting legacy

James Gilbert | Getty Images
James Gilbert
Getty Images

In the triumphant moments after his 2010 Indianapolis 500 victory, team owner Chip Ganassi made sure to briefly stop by a pair of celebrations at the track to be properly feted for the win. Then — even as the crowd was still exiting the track — he gathered his traveling party and quickly made his way to a motorcade that ushered him to a small airport nearby.

There was no hesitation as to what Ganassi wanted to do.

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As the traffic was still crawling away from the track below him, Ganassi was airborne heading to the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, NASCAR’s traditional Memorial Day event, where Ganassi’s current driver Jamie McMurray was chasing down Ganassi’s future driver Kurt Busch for a win.

It would have been the truest of “Memorial Day Doubles,” but McMurray finished second that day. Three months earlier, however, McMurray delivered the first half of Ganassi’s historic year by winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

That May afternoon at Indianapolis marked the first time in history a team had won both NASCAR’s crown jewel and IndyCar’s biggest race in the same year.

As he is so fond of saying, Ganassi “likes winners.” Such is his love of racing and competition.

“That was certainly one to remember,” Ganassi said of the 2010 season. “And we had plenty of other times with wins in both series on the same day. Those are great days you’ll never forget.

“If you could just take some of that feeling and put it in a jar and taste it every once in a while, you’d be fine.”

Over the course of a 20-year NASCAR run, Ganassi tasted from that jar often.

It’s resulted in a lot to reflect on as his esteemed NASCAR operation takes its final checkered flag in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series Championship at Phoenix Raceway. The 63-year-old Pittsburgh native has sold his stock-car assets to up-and-coming owner Justin Marks, who fields the Trackhouse Racing Team.

“It was little bit the right time, little bit the right offer, little bit the right person, the right buyer,” Ganassi said. “It was the right circumstance.”

The tone of Ganassi’s voice still reverberates the weight of the decision. There is plenty of solace, however, in feeling like it has been a tenure well spent and legacy well-received.

Jason Smith | Getty Images
Jason Smith | Getty Images

He originally bought control of the famed SABCO team in 2001, renaming it Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. And during his ownership reign, the names of Ganassi’s teams have shape-shifted with his partners. For a five-year period from 2009-2013, it was Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and ultimately, it returned to the familiar Chip Ganassi Racing.

Through his 20 seasons, Ganassi employed 18 drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series, ranging from Sterling Marlin and Jason Leffler in 2001 to Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain, who will make the final starts for the team this weekend. Some of the biggest names in motorsport drove Ganassi cars from McMurray and Casey Mears to Jimmy Spencer and former series champion Matt Kenseth.

One of the most innovative aspects of Ganassi was his ability to challenge drivers – mix and match talent from both his open-wheel background and love of sports cars, too. He brought Indy 500 and Formula One winner Juan Pablo Montoya and three-time Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar series champion Dario Franchitti to NASCAR and took his NASCAR drivers to the Rolex 24 at Daytona, winning IMSA’s crown jewel multiple times.

This year’s leading NASCAR Cup Series driver Kyle Larson got his start with the Ganassi team as well, and joins McMurray and Marlin as the only drivers to earn multiple victories in a season for Ganassi.

Marlin’s third-place finish in the 2001 NASCAR Cup Series championship is the best-ever championship showing for the team, which during its two-decade existence earned those 20 wins, plus 36 pole positions, 196 top-five and 474 top-10 finishes. In Larson’s four-win 2017 season, the Californian led 1,352 laps of the organization’s 8,714 laps led total — 15 percent — in that one season. Ganassi doubled his victory total with 20 NASCAR Xfinity Series wins as well.

“It’s the honesty of racing to win and that’s what Chip was always about,” Busch said of the high level of talent attracted to drive Ganassi cars. “That’s the best way I can say it. I never felt like we were getting paid to do what we do. We just go out there to win because he sets the tone and demands it, without even having to say what has to happen. And we all have the same direction together.

“That’s why it was the best place for me at this point in my career, and I think that’s why McMurray was there for so many years. I think it’s why Montoya had such an allegiance to Chip. Guys like [David] Stremme and Sterling Marlin and Kyle Larson, the whole fraternity that raced for Chip had fun, but knew we were there to get that trophy.”

Loyalty and long tenures

McMurray was so fond of Ganassi, he drove for him twice, competing from 2002-2005 then coming back to the team in 2010 when he earned both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 trophies.

“I think probably the most impressive part of Chip — whether on the IndyCar side or NASCAR side — is that there are very few owners that have success where racing is their business,” McMurray said. “I know Chip was always proud that he didn’t own 5,000 car dealerships. He didn’t own a truck leasing company. Literally, racing was his business. That’s how he made a living. And he had the longest-tenured sponsor, Target, for 25 years. He was able to have a super successful race team as his job.

“I think it was pretty amazing Chip was able to survive as long as he did and not only survive but win the biggest races. And I think his big home run was coming out on top when he left.”

Brian Lawdermilk
Brian Lawdermilk

Ganassi almost always had the respect of his drivers and quickly earned the respect of NASCAR titans as well — even those who initially may have considered him an outsider. If they were unsure of what to expect from this open-wheel stalwart, they quickly discovered his process worked in stock cars, too.

“I think Chip has a unique feel for racing because he’s been a driver,” NASCAR Hall of Fame team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s been a driver and an owner and he’s been successful in everything he’s done. I’ve enjoyed working with him with the engine program and just being close to him as a Chevrolet team. He’s a good friend and I admire his racer mentality. He’s driven to win in anything he’s in and he’s in a lot right now. Cadillac program, off-road, electric trucks and running all over the world.

“I hate to see Chip leave NASCAR but when you look at the success as a racer and an owner he’s had in IndyCar and NASCAR, he’s one of the very best,” Hendrick continued. “He builds an unbelievable team and his success record in IndyCar and NASCAR has been phenomenal.”

The great irony is that for his love of cars and his immense competitive spirit, it was actually Ganassi’s fondness of people that helped him succeed.

He gave young drivers their first real shot in competitive equipment and he gave veteran drivers the confidence to expand their resumes in different genres.

“If you look back over the 20 years he competed in NASCAR, he had the right people,” said Max Jones, who served as Chip Ganassi Racing’s Managing Director of NASCAR. “He didn’t win a championship, but he was always a top-running team. He gave a lot of people opportunities that weren’t going to maybe get that opportunity — not only drivers, but crew chiefs and crew members and business people.

“A lot of people judge success by wins and championships, but what he was able to do was bring a company like Target in for all those years and from a business standpoint, I think he helped NASCAR. He’s been a mover and shaker in this sport. He’s won all the big races in the world. When you look at his success, you put him right there next to Roger [Penske]. I’m honored I got to work for him.

“He likes winners. I know that’s a hashtag he has going on, but if you break it down, that really is him. He doesn’t tolerate complacency or people that don’t want to give it their all. And he’s a super loyal guy to everyone who works for him.”

It’s a reflection of Ganassi’s personality and style that even his former drivers still speak so fondly of him, still value the difference Ganassi made in their careers and their lives.

MORE: Chip Ganassi Racing’s wins by driver

“I loved my time getting to race for Chip,” said Larson, who was hired by Ganassi in 2012 as an unsung 19-year-old and is now a nine-time race winner in 2021 with Hendrick Motorsports, contending this weekend for his first NASCAR Cup Series championship

“He was an amazing team owner, leader, motivational speaker. I will forever be grateful for what he was able to do for myself, my career and my family, taking a shot on a relatively unknown young dirt racer and propelling me to the Cup Series in a short amount of time with a great race team and great people was amazing.

“I’m very, very thankful for the friendship I was able to make with him in the years I got to race for him and the success we got to share in and I wish him all the best in the future and I know he’s still going to leave a massive impact on the sport of motorsports.”

Brian Cleary
Brian Cleary

A fond farewell

It’s evident when Ganassi speaks about his tenure in NASCAR which things stand out. He won a Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400, made runs at the championship and fielded cars for some of the biggest names in the sport.

Yet as competitive as he is, Ganassi doesn’t consider true success based solely only upon a trophy count. It’s not just about the speed, the parts, the hardware, but about the smiles, triumphant feels in Victory Lane and the constant desire to keep up the good work even when you aren’t getting showered in confetti or spraying champagne.

It’s about weekdays at the shop surrounded by motivated, talented people who seized the process and wanted more of the good feels. He likes winners, and that description is broad.

As for his farewell, Ganassi chooses to be full of gratitude and fond memories. He took on a challenge in NASCAR, pushing his comfort level.

And winning.

“Just a lot of great competitors, a lot of great wins, a lot of great relationships and overall a positive experience for 20 years,” Ganassi said. “People are always looking for the difficulty or the melancholy in things, I kind of look at it another way. It was a very successful 20 years. I saw families grow. There were a lot of successes in having a 20-year business that never really make the final standings, they don’t show up in the win-loss column. They don’t even show up in the profit-loss column. But there were still a lot of successes there that we can be very proud of.

“And that’s how I look at it.”