Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram They are first-class guys. They are great team owners and racers. They are always competing for the Indy 500 trophy and with one race to go are still vying to beat each other for this year's IndyCar ...
Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram
They are first-class guys. They are great team owners and racers. They are always competing for the Indy 500 trophy and with one race to go are still vying to beat each other for this year's IndyCar championship. They lead their respective categories in sports car racing. But they can't win regularly in NASCAR or get drivers into the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.
That's the conundrum of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi.
Is NASCAR's Sprint Cup that much more difficult than IndyCar? Are the American Le Mans Series, where Penske's Porsche team leads the LMP2 championship, or the Grand-Am's Rolex Series, where Ganassi's squad is in contention for the title, that much of a distraction?
For the moment, the answer is yes. Neither Ganassi nor Penske will have a driver in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship, whose line-up will be confirmed on Saturday in Richmond. It's the only flat spot in an otherwise stellar season for each, which includes a victory in the Daytona 24-hour for Ganassi, the odds-on favorite to capture the IndyCar championship after winning the Indy 500 with Scott Dixon. For Penske, there's an unprecedented Daytona 500/Sebring quinella.
But alas, no Chase.
Winning in any major American series takes the same ingredients: good chassis, engines and aerodynamics on the technical preparation side and a good driver and pit crew on race day. What's most odd about the Penske-Ganassi conundrum is their superior performance technically everywhere but in NASCAR. This in a decade when the technology among the good ol' stars of the Sprint Cup has expanded exponentially, which would seem to be an open door to the engineering expertise of the perennial IndyCar/road racing leaders.
Penske Racing has proven it can transfer technology effectively and win big in the past. But it's been 15 years since Rusty Wallace began his remarkable string of 25 victories in four seasons aboard the Miller Genuine Draft Pontiacs and Fords. Rusty never won the title during those big seasons at Penske because either Richard Childress Racing, i.e. Dale Earnhardt, or Hendrick Motorsports got in the way -- or both. Since Wallace's runner-up finish in 1993, no other Penske driver has even come close to the NASCAR title.
In 2003, Ryan Newman led the league in poles (11) and in victories (8), but was sixth in the final season of the Latford points system. This year, Newman finally got the monkey off of Penske Racing's back by bringing it a victory in the Daytona 500. By contrast, Penske has 14 poles and victories at Indy. It's practically a near miss or victory every season the team has participated all the way back to Mark Donohue's victory in 1972. Not so at Daytona.
After forming his partnership with Felix Sabates in 2001, the Ganassi team led the Sprint Cup points standings for much of the 2002 season until Sterling Marlin was forced to the sidelines with a broken neck following shunts in Richmond and Kansas City. Jamie McMurray stepped into the team's Dodges and won almost out of the box in Charlotte. Since then, the Ganassi team has but one victory -- by Juan Pablo Montoya on the road circuit in Sonoma.
So what gives, besides this year's driver defections to other NASCAR teams from Penske and Ganassi?
Well, perhaps the competition is tougher in NASCAR. Just as IndyCar has its perennial favorites in Indianapolis and in the championship, so the Sprint Cup has the select multi-car teams expected to be in the hunt. This year's line-up for the Chase includes drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, Roush Racing and Richard Childress Racing with a look-in from Gillett Evernham Motorsports.
Funny thing, albeit relatively boring. None of these NASCAR stalwarts is racing regularly in any other brand of series. Rather they tend to focus on the understudies in NASCAR like the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck Series whenever they venture out of the Sprint Cup. (That said, Childress will take on the Grand-Am next year with Max Crawford and Rick Howard.)
The cynic might suggest that both Penske and Ganassi raise money in NASCAR and spend it on IndyCar. But the current era of corporate sponsors are far too wise for that sort of slight of hand. Besides, there's not much doubt the budgets are in place for the Penske and Ganassi teams when they arrive at Sprint Cup races.
It may be beneficial to run several major programs under one ownership in terms of savings on overhead, increases in technology transfer and sponsorship exposure. But if that's the case, it should benefit all branches of the business with some equanamity. Most sponsors would be entitled to that point of view. One doesn't know the nitty gritty particulars, but the departure of ChevronTexaco from Ganassi and the inability to land a sponsor for the Sprint Cup entry of Dario Franchitti, an Indy 500 winner and IndyCar champion, may speak to more than just the economy.
The fact is more teams have major budgets in NASCAR than they do elsewhere, including the participation of manufacturers. (If you had to pick who had the least effective factory program this year, of course, that would be Dodge, the car of the moment for both Penske and Ganassi.)
The participants at the top rung of NASCAR get up early and focus on one thing all day long -- winning Sprint Cup races. There's too many races, too much money and too much history of pride and dedication to stock car racing to let anything else stand in the way.
Not even the spot on great ones from IndyCar like Penske and Ganassi have been able to fight that consistently. The only way to win this battle, it seems to me, is to put IndyCar back at the top of the heap in American racing.
That's a story for another day.