Ganassi Team Ahead Of Schedule

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So much for Chip Ganassi Racing’s three-year plan for success in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series.

Not that the organization is running behind schedule, mind you. In fact, it’s already a couple of years ahead of where Ganassi was hoping it would be.

A pretty scary thought for the rest of the Winston Cup competition in the near future.

While one car didn’t quite live up to its expectations in 2001, Ganassi’s other car surpassed them. Not only did Sterling Marlin win a pair of races this past season, but he also finished third in the Winston Cup championship standings and spent the entire year in the Top 10 in the points despite the team adjusting to a brand-new manufacturer in Dodge.

The organization has an established veteran driver for its second car in Jimmy Spencer and a high-profile sponsor to go along with him, so things are looking pretty good for Chip Ganassi Racing heading into the 2002 season.

“We’ve achieved some things a lot sooner than we had anticipated,” said team manager Andy Graves. “We didn’t want to set our goals too high and end up failing with those goals, so we were pretty modest about it. We’ve got a lot of great people, something we’re very fortunate to have been blessed with.

“Basically, coming into 2001 we had a three-year plan. By that time we wanted to be competitive week in and week out and be in the Top 5 in the points. Obviously the learning curve went from a three-year deal to a one-year deal. We’re super excited about the future, but we’re also proud of our achievements this season.

“We’re pushing forward, and I do believe that we will become one of the powerhouse teams in Winston Cup racing. We’ve earned a lot of respect in just the past year, and we’re looking to gain a lot more.”

Certainly Chip Ganassi Racing hasn’t reached the status of other organizations such as Richard Childress Racing, Roush Racing, Hendrick Motorsports or Dale Earnhardt Inc. – yet. But give it time, give it time…

Look at how far the team has come in just the one full season in which Ganassi has taken control of the majority ownership of the team. Felix Sabates sold a big portion of the team to Ganassi during the 2000 season, a year in which Marlin finished 19th in the points and didn’t win a race and three combined drivers finished 28th in the owner points in the No. 01 car.

“When I got together with (team co-owner) Felix (Sabates) about a year and a half ago, I told him there were good things to come and I was going to make an effort to make things happen on this team,” Ganassi said. “I’m going to continue to try to do that. You can only do that if you have a great partner to start with.”

Without a doubt, the No. 40 Coors Light team with Marlin was the top Dodge team this past season. He began the season with a seventh-place finish at Daytona and never looked back, giving Dodge its first victory in the series since the late 1970s when he won the rain-shortened Pepsi 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

He followed that up a few weeks later by winning the UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and finished the season strong with consecutive runner-up finishes at Atlanta and New Hampshire.

Ganassi’s other car experienced more problems than anyone had anticipated, however. Rookie driver Jason Leffler did a score a pole, but had trouble qualifying for races and finished 38th in the points. That led to his ouster after only one year.

“Jason (Leffler) did everything we asked of him,” Ganassi said. “He did a great job. We just decided that right now, our team needed someone with a little bit more experience. We’re parting on great terms with Jason.”

“With as much success as we had with Sterling, yeah, we were disappointed with the performance of the No. 01 team,” Graves said. “We really struggled and had to miss some races, so it’s definitely not what we had envisioned. Now we just need to go ahead and move on, and we’re going to do that with Jimmy Spencer. We’re looking for big things out of that team next year.”

Spencer, who has two career Winston Cup victories, officially joined the organization in mid-November when it was announced that he would drive the No. 41 Dodge, formerly the No. 01 car driven by Leffler, with Target stores as the sponsor.
Spencer said he just couldn’t be as competitive as he wanted to be at Carter-Haas Racing, where he had spent the past seven seasons. He said he recognized during the season that someplace like Chip Ganassi Racing was where he could be competitive in the near future.

“I’ve been in racing for a long time, and when you have the opportunity to get on board with an organization and sponsor dedicated to winning a championship, you can’t pass it up,” Spencer said. “I think that when you look at Chip’s record in Indy car (four CART Fed-Ex Series championships), you’ll see what he wants to do in Winston Cup.

“Look at his organization, what he’s done in the shop, what he’s done with Dodge. They came out of the box as the No. 1 Dodge team. With Sterling (Marlin) on board, look at what he had done the past couple of years and when Chip came in with his engineering staff… well, you get the picture.

“We’ve got a crew chief (Matt Chambers) we think will do an excellent job for us. I’ve never seen a team in this sport that shares the information that (co-team manager) Tony (Glover) and Andy (Graves) share constantly. We expect to be a top-10 team immediately when we start at Daytona (in February). I feel like the No. 41 team will be a top-10 team at Daytona and until the end of the season in Miami (Homestead). I really feel we can be a top-10 car and win some races.”

Graves said there isn’t any reason why Marlin won’t be a leading contender for the Winston Cup championship in 2002, and that Spencer can’t finish in the Top 10 in the points.

“We know the 41 car will win a few races and move up in the points,” Graves said. “But with the 40 car, we feel like we’re in a position to win a lot of races and run for a championship. I think people are definitely going to know we’re out there next year. All of a sudden we’ve become one of the teams to beat.”

And it didn’t take three years, just one.

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