MBNA Platinum 400 Dover Downs International Speedway ANDY GRAVES (Team Manager Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Dodge Intrepid R/Ts with drivers Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer) NOTE: Marlin leads the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings by...
MBNA Platinum 400
Dover Downs International Speedway
ANDY GRAVES (Team Manager Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Dodge Intrepid R/Ts with drivers Sterling Marlin and Jimmy Spencer)
NOTE: Marlin leads the NASCAR Winston Cup Standings by 87 points over Matt Kenseth after 12 of 36 races this season. Marlin has led the standings since his second-place finish to Kenseth at Rockingham on Feb. 24, 2002. The 44-year-old driver from Columbia, Tenn., has two wins, four top fives and eight top 10s this season with no DNFs. He has 551 career starts with 10 career victories and 11 career poles. Graves helped Ganassi form his Dodge Winston Cup team, and Graves worked with Ganassi in 2000 and captured the Indianapolis 500. Graves watched the 2002 Indy 500 in the back of the Target Racing transporter on Sunday at Lowe's Motor Speedway. He talks about his tenure with Ganassi at Indy, helping form the Winston Cup operation and Sunday's race at Dover Downs International Speedway.
"I really didn't think a whole lot about Indy this year until they started the National Anthem, and then I kinda wished I was there. It was definitely the highlight of my career in 2000 when I was up there, and I miss it quite a bit. It did a lot for me from a confidence standpoint. It was always a dream of mine just to be able to go and compete there. When you can compete with a car owner like Chip and with two drivers like Juan and Jimmy, obviously you go there with your guns loaded. The confidence that everyone up there with Chip Ganassi Racing had in me was great, and everything clicked. It was something special. I was team manager for both teams. It was just for the Indy 500. That's the only IRL race we ran the whole year. Basically, I spent seven months in Indianapolis just preparing for that one race.
"When we first got together, Chip said he was very interested in getting into Winston Cup and couldn't guarantee me that we were going to do it in 2001. He asked if I would move to Indy for seven months and once Indy was over, he'd let me go back home for the rest of the year and if we didn't have any irons in the fire, then he just wanted me to come to the rest of the CART races that year to help him. I guess the first week in May, Chip struck the deal with Felix. We really never had to worry about what was going to happen after the Indy 500. Right after it was over, I moved back here and started looking at SABCO and figuring out what we were going to start doing.
"It would be tough for a driver to run at Indy and Charlotte in the same day. Not only to their schedules have to work out perfect, but it's awfully demanding as a driver. Tony Stewart has done it a couple of times. Robby Gordon did it this year. I think it's pretty neat. I don't have anything against them or think it's selfish or foolish to do that. I think Tony proved last year he could be pretty competitive and successful in both races. I don't think either one of our drivers right now could do the open wheel side or have the inclination to do it. It's got to be something you want to do awfully bad. Guys like Tony and Robby have that burning desire to compete up there, and that's basically what you have to have to pull it off.
"Basically the way we're set up, Tony Glover and I are team managers over both cars. It just happens on race day, Glover is with the 40 and I'm with the 41. What's the difference in the two cars? Basically, the paint jobs. As soon as we got done at Indy in 2000, we came back and restructured SABCO. It wasn't long after that that we lost Kenny Irwin. All we knew for sure after that was that Sterling would be back with us. When we started the Dodge program and started building all new cars and started testing at the end of 2000, everything was geared around Sterling. We built this team up around Sterling. That's not to say that we don't provide Jimmy with as good of equipment as we do Sterling. Both cars are built the same. I think we built our program more around what Sterling feels, and it's going to take a little while for Jimmy to adjust to that. There are races where Jimmy has probably outrun Sterling - Bristol, Richmond, Jimmy had a better car than Sterling at Darlington at that time of the race when he got caught up in that wreck with Tony and then Sterling ended up going on and winning the race.
"Everyone looks at it and says they don't understand why the 41 doesn't compete as well as the 40. The 40 is consistent every week and is a top 10 team. The 41 is probably a little more hit and miss because Jimmy is learning to adapt his style to our cars. In most ways, Sterling and Jimmy are very similar but in a couple of areas they like totally different things. It's weird because coming into this year, we thought we'd be super competitive with Jimmy on the bigger tracks and we'd struggle on the shorter tracks. It's been totally opposite. We had a good chance to win the race at Bristol with Jimmy. We had a really good car at Richmond and were leading the race and got caught up in that deal with Jimmie Johnson. We came back and finished 10th. We had one of the five fastest cars on the track at Martinsville and had a flat tire and lost three laps and made up two of' em. I'd say the short tracks have been Jimmy's strongest point this year.
"We're going to gear up Sterling's stuff a little more for the short tracks. We're going to gear up more testing with Jimmy on the bigger tracks. What's nice about the whole situation, if we look at it now collectively as an organization, our cars can run competitive on both the big tracks and short tracks. It's just some of the setup characteristics the drivers want.... We've talked about Sterling taking a little closer look at some of Jimmy's setups on the short tracks, and Jimmy needs to look at Sterling's setups on some of the bigger tracks and try to adapt their style around that. It's obviously working for their teammates.
"I'd say probably at this point, Sterling is definitely better on the chassis side of things, trying to tell us what he wants and needs better than Jimmy can. But a lot of it is chemistry also. Sterling was here in the group before we got here, and we built everything around his feel and what he wanted. Jimmy is still learning how to adapt to our cars. He was used to working with Donnie Wingo for a long time. Now he has to come in and kind of learn all over again and tell us what he wants. It's been a little bit of a struggle, but it gets down to just a time frame.
"There are times when Jimmy and Sterling are exactly identical. You couldn't ask for two guys to be any closer, and then again, they can be at totally opposite ends of the spectrum. Personalities, driving characteristics, it's just a learning process. Without a doubt, it would have been nice to have won a race with the 41 car already. To be 20th in points and to have missed a race is a pretty good statement.
"I like Dover, so I'm pretty excited about getting up there. We had a strong run with Jason Leffler up there last spring. I don't think it's like a big Bristol. It's something unique to itself. I think a lot of people try to compare it to Bristol. We actually do carry Bristol cars, but the setup and how you need to run the place.... You have to be glued right on the bottom of the track and nine times out of 10 Stewart is going to be the man to beat up there. He does a good job at that joint.
"It was nice if Sterling was going to have a DNF to have it in The Winston. It was kind of disappointing to wreck that car, but at the same time we have a good fleet of cars back at the shop. It's not going to set us back too far. I hope if you have to have your one or two bad weekends and bad luck comes along that The Winston was one of' em for us.
"We want to bring our best cars every week. We try to always take our best stuff. If we lose one, we lose it. We have four more cars that drive exactly like the one we lost in The Winston. We brought 203 to Charlotte for the 600 and we won both of our races this year with Sterling with that car. We've hit on some stuff the last year and a half where we're able to duplicate cars a lot closer. It's been pretty tough to do that for years, and some of our techniques and the way we go about building cars are a little bit different. We've looked at some different things. I'm not saying if it's right or wrong, but it's obviously working for us right now.
"At the moment, everything is going good. You always want to make gain and push forward, but at the same time you've got to be careful you don't make a gain that's going to bite you later on. We keep looking at that and try to make sure we're making the right moves and trying to stay ahead of the competition, but don't beat ourselves. That's the biggest thing right now. We don't want to beat ourselves. We still have a pretty good R&D program where we're testing a lot of things, but right now, leading the points, we'll want to prove it out at a great length than we normally would before we start implementing those changes on our cars on a weekly basis because we don't want to mess up something down the road that's been working for us.
"When I won the championship in 1996 with Terry Labonte and the 5 car, we didn't detune. We approached every week the same and let the points fall where they may. I think that's what you have to do nowadays to approach it. You can't start detuning and trying to be too conservative and pull back. That's when you get out our your normal routine and things will bite you.
"The two races Sterling won last year were both in the second half of the season (two of the last 14), so if you look at the second half of last year and the first third of this year, it's a pretty impressive record. We've just got to keep chipping away at it. I'd say at this point in time we don't necessarily have to win more races to win the championship, but it'd sure be nice to get another two or three.
"Sterling has done a great job. I feel like he's gotten a lot better the last couple of years, maybe not so much driving but just handling the whole package, knowing what he wants in the car, being smart in the race car, being patient, not trying to carry a seventh-place car to a fifth-place finish. He's got all the confidence in the world right now. When you have a lot of confidence it's hard to beat a guy like that. Hats have to go off to Lee McCall and Tony Glover and the whole 40 pit crew. Those guys do a good job in the pits week in and week out, and they make some good calls. When things are going your way and it's meant to be, then the breaks will fall in favor of you and when things aren't going your way, it seems like no matter what you do it just always blows up in your face.
"I think the 41 team is on track. If we hadn't missed Daytona, basically because of our own fault stemming back from last year, if you take that out, I'd say they'd probably be 11th or 12th in points right now. I think if you threw that in, no one from the media would be asking those kind of questions right now.
"It's worked out good for me. I left at the end of' 99 to do the deal with Chip and run the IRL program. I think a lot of people thought at that point in time it might have been a foolish decision on my behalf to walk away from Winston Cup when I was having a pretty decent job with a good organization, but I got to win the Indy 500 and come back and finish third in points and run for the championship with Sterling this year. I'm pretty happy. Everything is going good. If we continue to make gains like we've made gains the last couple of years, then I'll be satisfied.
"I really don't worry about the points until you get past the Fourth of July. Then, if you're within 200 points of the leader, that means you have a shot at it. I'm not going to look at anything until we get there. Obviously every team has a window of opportunity. It's just like any other professional sport. I think the window of opportunity is here now for the 40 team. If we don't get it this year, then I still think we have a good shot at running for it again next year or getting a second one next year. It won't be like the end of the world, but obviously, being so strong at the start of the season, if it slips out of our fingers it'll be disappointing.
"I'd say if anyone surprises me, I'd say Kurt Busch surprises me more than anyone. It's great to see Kurt running well, and I'm really happy for Jimmy Fennig. I think the world of Jimmy, and I'm glad to see Jimmy take Kurt and run good with him."