Ganassi Runs The Gauntlet

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Chip Ganassi isn’t kidding himself. He knows the odds are stacked against his two-car operation in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series in 2001, and for several reasons.

For one, the four-time CART Series championship owner is still in the infant stages of learning about stock cars. For another, his drivers will be piloting the new Dodge Intrepids, a car untested in Winston Cup competition.

He’ll also have a rookie in his No. 01 car in Jason Leffler, a 25-year-old who has had only one full season in stock cars, and that was at the NASCAR Busch Series level. And his crew chiefs, Kevin Cram and Lee McCall, have very little experience in that position at the Winston Cup level.

About the only constants Ganassi can rely on are Sterling Marlin, the veteran driver of his No. 40 Dodge, and the experience of his co-team managers, Andy Graves and Tony Glover.

So, the gauntlet has been thrown down before Ganassi. Forget about all of the success in the open-wheel ranks, the task to turn the fortunes of this team is on.

"It’s easy to say I could bring my winning ways of CART here, and I want to bring that to Winston Cup," said Ganassi, who won CART titles with Jimmy Vasser (1996), Alex Zanardi (1997 and 1998) and Juan Montoya (1999). "But that’s a tall order, and a big challenge. Personally, I’m all for the challenge.

"I have a lot to learn about this type of racing, but at the same time, I have an open mind and I have a great group of guys here that I look forward to working with. I hope that I have a team that is worthy of people paying close attention to. We’ll find that out soon enough."

Cal Wells, another successful open-wheel mogul, found out just how rough and competitive things can be in the Winston Cup Series last year. His first full season at NASCAR’s highest level saw his No. 32 Tide team fail to qualify for six races and finish 37th in the points with driver Scott Pruett.

Wells has since expanded his operation to include another Winston Cup team and will field cars for Ricky Craven and rookie Andy Houston, but more growing pains are eminent at PPI Motorsports.

Ganassi, who purchased the majority of the organization from former Team SABCO owner Felix Sabates last year, anticipates approximately the same learning curve for his race teams.

"Obviously, I have very little experience in Winston Cup racing," Ganassi said. "Over the years, I’ve run into some friends and acquaintances that have been involved in different forms of racing, and I’ve developed a lot of friendships in NASCAR over the years. One of those friendships was with Felix, and I’ve been very fortunate to be associated with him.

"We’re very fortunate to have two great sponsors (Coors Light and Cingular Wireless Services) on board with us. The deal with Dodge, well, we hope we can get going right out of the box with these new cars and show people we can be competitive. If we can do that, I think we’ll be alright."

The last time one of Sabates’ teams won a race was 1999, when Joe Nemechek won at New Hampshire. Previous to that, Sabates’ last victory was with Kyle Petty in 1995.

Ganassi’s teams are two of 10 who will be fielding Dodges for the 2001 campaign. Dodge is making its first appearance in the Winston Cup Series since 1985, so it remains to be seen whether or not all of the preparation and hype surrounding the research and development efforts of the new Intrepid will be fruitful early on this season.

That question mark alone is just another huge hurdle for Chip Ganassi Racing to overcome.

"We chose the Dodge program because it’s something we really believe in," said Graves, a former crew chief for Terry Labonte at Hendrick Motorsports. "There was a lot of research on our part as well as the other teams, and I don’t think you’d have that many teams coming on board if it wasn’t something we felt was going to be beneficial and successful for our race teams down the line.

"Sure, we’re going to have our struggles, as any team would have with a new manufacturer like this. We’re not expecting miracles to start out with, but as soon as we get on the track and learn about what these things can do and can’t do, I think we’re going to be fine. We’re really looking forward to it."

Marlin hasn’t won a Winston Cup race since the spring of 1996 at Talladega Superspeedway, when he was with Morgan-McClure Motorsports. He finished 13th in the points his first year with Team SABCO, fell to 16th in 1999 and slipped to 19th in the standings in 2000.

Marlin has six career Winston Cup victories, but only one on a track smaller than 2.5 miles (Darlington, in the spring of 1995). He’ll team with Lee McCall, who assumes his first role as a Winston Cup crew chief despite a world of experience in the business.

"I’m ready to win a race or two again this year," Marlin said. "Working with Lee is going to be such a big plus. He’s a hard worker, as anyone around the garage area knows, and we’ll be a great combination. The biggest thing for us will be the Dodge question, but I’m confident we’ll be able to come right out of the box and be competitive."

Perhaps the biggest question at Chip Ganassi Racing surrounds Leffler, who left Joe Gibbs Racing after only one year in the Busch Series, a season in which he finished 20th in the points. Leffler signed a three-year deal with Ganassi that was supposed to take effect in 2002, but Gibbs decided to release Leffler and the plans were accelerated by a year.

Leffler has never been in a Winston Cup car competitively and has only one year of previous stock-car experience. It’s Leffler’s previous winning ways, however, that has Ganassi intrigued.

"He’s a three-time Midget champion and Silver Crown champion," Ganassi said. "You’ve got to like guys who have won championships, it’s that simple. It’s one thing to have a race winner, it’s another to have championships. I believe in him for that reason."

"It would have been nice for Jason to get another year of Busch racing under his belt, especially with a team the caliber of Joe Gibbs Racing," Graves said. "But we’re all very excited to have a young, future superstar come on board with us and have the confidence to join our organization.

"He’s going to be great. This is going to be an important year for Jason. Obviously the pace picks up a bit in Winston Cup, and it’s going to be a big adjustment period for him. Mentally, this is going to be an important year for him to get focused."

Leffler will be paired with Kevin Cram, the co-crew for Bill Elliott last season. Cram was the crew chief for Stacy Compton at Impact Motosports in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series in 1998 and 1999. He began his Winston Cup career as a mechanic at Geoff Bodine Racing in 1995.

With all of those obstacles in front of it, Chip Ganassi Racing heads into the 2001 campaign with guarded optimism.

"A lot of people are rating us very high right now," Graves said. "I see where they’re ranking the Dodge teams, and we’re in the middle of that pack. But that’s OK. Sterling’s going to surprise a lot of people, and I think Jason will surprise some people, as well. We’ll go through some growing pains this year, but we’ll be OK. I’ll be pretty surprised if we don’t end up in the Top 10 in the points next year."

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