Next step for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing

Maybe we should check to see if money is growing on trees in Chip Ganassi's yard, or whether his handshake leaves gold dust on your palms.

No team owner ever had won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Indy 500 in the same season before Ganassi's teams did it last year. Ganassi also won a third consecutive IndyCar championship and the Grand-Am title.

All in all, Ganassi isn't complaining about 2010. It doesn't get much better for a guy who makes racing his business.

"We had a lot of great memories," Ganassi said last month on the media tour in Charlotte. "We're really happy with the tone that was set last year, but we're constantly looking for that little bit we're missing."

Ganassi isn't missing much on his long list of racing accomplishments, but he still has one big prize out there to shoot for in NASCAR -- a Sprint Cup championship.

As the head guy at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, he's determined to get there.

"Over the last few years this is a group who's had to keep their heads down and stay on the plan," Ganassi said. "We still have a ways to go, but I think the direction we're headed is correct. Our cars are in contention more and more, week in and week out."

EGR contended when it counted in the big events last year, thanks to the return of Jamie McMurray. In his first year back with Ganassi after four seasons at Roush Fenway Racing, McMurray won the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Chase race at Charlotte in October.

And his wife, Christy, delivered their first child (son Carter) on Thanksgiving Day. McMurray also signed a new contract with EGR.

McMurray may be the only guy who had a better year than Ganassi.

"A lot has changed in my life over the last year, starting with winning the Daytona 500," McMurray said. "It's really hard to put into words what happens there, but it's amazing. You just have a different mindset the rest of the season. Then to back it up with wins at the Brickyard and Charlotte was quite remarkable.

"But I thought the coolest thing for me last year, other than the birth of my son, was walking in the media center [after winning] at Charlotte and everybody just looked at me like, 'Oh, it's Jamie.' That was the best feeling ever that you guys weren't shocked that I was there."

No one will be shocked if McMurray continues to win this season, but as good as it was last year, he still didn't make the Chase. Neither did teammate Juan Pablo Montoya.

"But I think we understand what it takes to get the job done," Montoya said at Charlotte last month. "There were a lot of weekends [in 2010] where we qualified up front, but couldn't match that pace in the race. I think we can improve on that."

So does Ganassi, who said he believes reaching the championship level is a step-by-step process of small gains over time.

"There are lots of places where we can improve," Ganassi said. "It's not something you look at after the end of a season. You look at it all the time. It's a constant process of seeing where you're weak and where you can get stronger. It's constantly looking in the mirror. If you don't, you are in for some surprises."

Felix Sabates, Ganassi's longtime partner in NASCAR, says Chip is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy.

"The man is totally unselfish," Sabates said of Ganassi. "He never talks about himself. All he wants to do is win. But one thing; when you're on the phone with him and he says, 'What else?' that means get off the friggin' phone."

Ganassi is a no-nonsense guy. His game-day apparel is a long-sleeve white shirt and black slacks.

Steve Lauletta, president of EGR, says Ganassi is all business, but not autocratic in how he runs things.

"Chip doesn't do anything else," Lauletta said. "This is his thing and he's amazingly good at it. We all know that. But the way he encourages us keeps everybody focused. He's available to all of us all the time."

That could explain why Ganassi has managed to keep Target as a primary sponsor of his race teams for 22 years. Energizer batteries has been with Ganassi for 16 years.

Stability is the key to Ganassi's success, along with making the right decision at the right time.

But Ganassi also is willing to take a chance if he sees a long-term reward. It worked last year in re-signing McMurray, who didn't have much success at Roush.

It also worked well in signing Montoya, an open-wheel star in Indy cars and Formula One who has proven he can compete and win in stock cars.

And it worked in merging with Dale Earnhardt Inc. two years ago, moving from Dodge to Chevrolet and becoming part of the Earnhardt-Childress Racing engine program.

"Being involved with Chevrolet has helped us so much," Sabates said. "And being involved with the Childress engine program has been a huge benefit to us."

ECR engines won all four restrictor-plate races last season and eight Cup races overall, including Montoya's victory at Watkins Glen.

But Montoya and McMurray lacked the consistency to make the Chase and contend for the championship.

The 2010 season had more high moments than anyone at EGR reasonably could have expected. The organization won two of NASCAR's crown jewels at Daytona and Indianapolis. But now it's time to take the next step and contend for the title.

"We had a lot of fun last year," said Kevin "Bono" Manion, McMurray's crew chief. "But this is a real serious racing organization, so what we accomplished wasn't enough."

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.