Chip Ganassi is in his happy place
INDIANAPOLIS -- Chip Ganassi is in an incredibly good mood for someone whose Sprint Cup organization -- on the surface -- seems maybe one notch above the "pathetic" he used to describe last season.
He is laughing.
He is smiling.
They're not. Far from it.
So why is Ganassi in such a good mood? It's Indy weekend.
Whether it's with IndyCar or NASCAR or Grand-Am -- which makes its debut on the road course Friday -- there's no track where Ganassi would rather be than this 2.5-mile landmark on the outskirts of town.
Here he's only a few miles from his IndyCar operation.
This, as Ganassi says, is the "magical center of motorsports."
Unfortunately for Ganassi, this hasn't been a magical season on the Sprint Cup side.
McMurray hasn't won since Charlotte in October 2010, a string of 60 consecutive races. He has led only 126 laps and recorded two top-5s since then. He has finished no better than seventh this season and is 20th in points.
Montoya hasn't won since Watkins Glen in 2010, a string of 71 consecutive races. He has led only 165 laps and recorded one top-5 since then. He has finished no better than eighth this season and is ranked 21st in points.
But where there's Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Brickyard 400 (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN), there is hope.
McMurray is hopeful he can recapture the magic that put him in Victory Lane here two years ago and fourth a year ago. Montoya is hopeful he can end the heartbreak that denied him victory here in 2009 and 2010 when he had dominant cars, and be in position to win as he was in 2007 when he finished second.
They both are hopeful they can turn around what has been a miserable 2012 season for them and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, and somehow climb into position for a wild-card berth.
And as bad as things look, EGR isn't in the state of disarray that it was when Dario Franchitti's team shut down in 2008, a state that co-owner Felix Sabates finally acknowledged after McMurray won the 2010 Daytona 500.
Back then the organization didn't have a car higher than 25th in points, driver Reed Sorenson had announced he was on the way out and sponsorship was sparse.
"That wasn't personal," Sabates said of my use of "disarray," which angered Ganassi at the time. "That was factual."
But it's not nearly that bad now. Ganassi has a lot of new people and a lot of new systems he put in place prior to this season, understanding great change was needed. He expects to struggle to some degree as most organizations do during the transition stages.
He is hopeful because he sees progress within that few of us can see on the surface.
"Are we where we want to be in the points? No," Ganassi says. "Are we where we want to be performance-wise? No. Are we happy with the people we have and direction we're going? Yes."
EGR is in better shape than a lot of organizations on things that count. It is solid with sponsor Target for Montoya, and optimistic McDonald's and Bass Pro Shop will be back with McMurray.
EGR isn't looking to make driver changes, with Montoya already signed and McMurray close to a new deal.
"We're in the middle of a process now," Ganassi says. "That process is going very well. While all things are not apparent to the eye on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, back at headquarters in Charlotte as a NASCAR team everybody is very excited about where things are going."
Ganassi is asked: Can you expand on those things?
"No," he says.
Classic Ganassi, always willing to let you partially into his inner circle but not all the way.
He's also honest. He called the 2011 season "pathetic" during the media tour in February because that's how he saw it. When asked where his team lies on the negative-word scale so far this year, he says, "We need to see improvement by the end of the year."
He probably will.
And Indianapolis is a good place to start based on recent success by McMurray and Montoya. If you're looking for dark horses to win, these are two not to be overlooked.
Just don't say that to Ganassi.
"As soon as you start to feel good about something, you fall flat on your face," he says.
So why has EGR fallen on its face for much of this year? Fellow team owner Richard Childress, who shares engines with EGR built out of Earnhardt-Childress Racing, says the power has been close to the other Chevy teams all season.
Ganassi isn't buying that.
"I think we could use some more power," he says.
Ganassi's never satisfied.
"I don't want to be close to the other teams," he says. "I want to be better."
He pauses, then adds, "The fact of the matter is, we need to work on car-handling issues."
As Ganassi speaks, Montoya and McMurray listen and smile. They understand this season is a culmination of many things not going right. As bad as things have been, they aren't down either.
"We know having so many new people, it's tough," Montoya says. "It's a painful process. It's been a hard season, but we're working on it. You can see the light at the end of the tunnel."
At IMS, that light looks brighter than normal. Not only do McMurray and Montoya believe they have a chance to win on Sunday, they believe they have a chance to win Friday's Grand-Am race to add to Ganassi's success here.
"This is fun for us," McMurray says.
It's fun for Ganassi, too. As Montoya talks about becoming the only driver to compete in every form of racing at IMS, his boss quips, "No plans to have him on GP bikes in August."
Ganassi isn't one of those who believes IMS created heresy when it opened the doors to NASCAR in 1994, when it began racing other series outside of Indy cars on these hallowed grounds.
He believes the more the merrier, that IMS has raised the profile of the greatest track on earth by introducing it to more fans.
"It's the world center of racing, arguably the greatest course in the world regardless of configuration," Ganassi says.
Yes, Ganassi is in an incredibly good mood.
He's at Indy, after all.