Can Ganassi spread his success to NASCAR?

Bob Margolis

INDIANAPOLIS – There's no doubt about it, Chip Ganassi knows how to win races.

In Indy cars and sports cars, his teams are the best in the business.

But in the racing series that truly matters, the one that dominates the auto racing landscape in America – NASCAR – Ganassi's race teams can't get it right.

On Sunday, when Ganassi's driver Scott Dixon won the 92nd Indianapolis 500 in dominating fashion, starting the race from the pole and leading a race-high 115 of 200 laps, his NASCAR teams at the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway were being considered also-rans.

For any other team owner, this might be an embarrassing situation.

Not for Ganassi. He instead prefers to bask in the glow of a second Indy 500 win, insisting that his NASCAR program is headed in the right direction, despite recent headlines that give the impression that it is drifting aimlessly.

The charismatic team owner's assessment comes amid the recent firing of Jimmy Elledge, one of his NASCAR program's long-standing crew chiefs, criticism about the teams' direction from his marquee driver Juan Pablo Montoya, flat performances from supposed rising star Reed Sorenson and the shaky conversion of 2007 Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti from Indy cars to stock cars.

No one can question Ganassi's record as a team owner in Indy car racing. It is remarkable. His CART teams in the 1990s were unmatched in open wheel racing, scoring four straight championships from 1996-1999. He then became the first team owner to break ranks with CART and race in the rival IRL in 2000 when he entered Montoya in the Indianapolis 500.

His team dominated this year's Indy 500 in much the same fashion they did in 2000. Yet, Ganassi's teams have stumbled in the most important racing series of all, and have set the standard for mediocrity.

"I feel like we have the right strategy and I'm staying with that strategy," Ganassi said. "That strategy works in this company."

It has worked with his IRL program and in the Grand American Series, where his teams scored a record-setting third straight victory in the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona sports car endurance race in January.

Ganassi insists the secret to his success is his employees. The man guiding his Indy car and sports car programs from Ganassi's Indianapolis base is Mike Hull. He has been with the team owner for more than a decade.

"He's the guy that keeps it all steady and moving in the proper direction," Ganassi said. "I'm just lucky to have him."

Hull is the kind of guy you want running your racing program. He's racing's equivalent of Joe Torre or Phil Jackson.

"The whole team has a great deal of respect for Mike's knowledge of racing and respect for him as a person," Ganassi said. "He has a large amount of responsibility for the team, and he always gets the job done."

Hull is a humble man. Yet he displays a level of confidence that comes when you know you've got a winning program in place and the people around you are the best in the business.

On Sunday, that knowledge and confidence came together and under Hull's guidance, Dixon's team will celebrate having earned the most sought-after prize in racing, a win in the Indianapolis 500.

"We dedicate ourselves as a team to win big races and we're thankful we did it today," Hull said.

Hull's equivalent in Ganassi's NASCAR program is Steve Hmiel.

Hmiel brings more than 35 years of racing experience to Ganassi's NASCAR operations, most recently as director of technical operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. He's known for his work with Dale Earnhardt, Jr., helping that racing icon win 17 Cup races, including the 2005 Daytona 500.

However, Hmiel has found it reason to saddle Montoya with his third crew chief this season, which led Montoya to express his frustration in a recent interview.

"I think it's really hard that in my first mile-and-a-half Cup race, I was very close to getting a top-10 finish," Montoya told the Associated Press. "Two years later, we're running 20th. We should be a lot further. We should be a lot better of a team right now, and we're not."

Sorenson, Montoya's teammate, entered Sunday's race mired in 31st in driver points while newcomer Franchitti has struggled in nearly every race this season on the NASCAR circuit.

As Ganassi works to improve his NASCAR program he has told those around him that he'll keep making changes until he gets it right.

"We're in this business for one reason and it's to win races and win championships and give back something to our sponsors," Ganassi said.

There's no doubt that Ganassi knows how to do it. The big question: Can it happen in a timely manner?

Sorenson is a free agent after this season and there have been whispers that Montoya has been sought by other Cup teams who recognize that the talented former Formula One driver could likely have won more NASCAR races had he been on another team.

And as for Franchitti, his future in NASCAR is cloudy. A serious wreck at Talladega in April has sidelined him over the past six weeks. He is expected to return behind the wheel of his Sprint Cup car in the coming weeks.

Despite the turmoil in his professional life, Ganassi still had time to enjoy the spoils of his second Indy 500 victory Sunday afternoon.

Even before driver Dixon had the chance to take the traditional sip of the Indy 500 winner's milk in victory circle, Ganassi was off to the side, taking a swig.

"There are a few things you get out of this business," Ganassi said. "One of them is rings, one of them is trophies and one is a sip of milk."

And the first phone call he received after Dixon took the checkered flag came from Lowe's Motor Speedway.

It was from Franchitti and Montoya.

"Hey, great job," said the two.

Then they inquired, "Why were you drinking the milk before Dixon?"