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Harris: Open-Wheel Rivals Chasing Each Other In Cup

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2009
The pairing of Chip Ganassi and Juan Pablo Montoya is in contention for a championship. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

The pairing of Chip Ganassi and Juan Pablo Montoya is in contention for a championship. (Photo courtesy of NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

Team owners Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi each have a chance to do something this year that they’ve never done before – win a NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

It’s something of a mystery why these two behemoths of open-wheel racing have had so little real success in the stock car sport.

You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of team owners  in open-wheel racing who have known how to consistently get the job done,  to win races and championships in multiples.

Right up there on top is Penske. The always immaculate, silver-haired Captain, head of a multibillion dollar business empire uses his IndyCar team as a showpiece for his customers and possible new business partners.

“It’s my golf game,’’ Penske likes to say about his expensive and rewarding hobby.

Nobody has had more success in the open-wheel  business. Penske’s drivers  – an all-star cast over the years –  have won more than 140 races, including an astonishing 15 Indianapolis 500 trophies.  They have also amassed 12 championships along the way.

Not far behind Penske is Ganassi. The Chipster is a sometimes brusque, strong-willed man who is also a very good businessman and very successful  in open-wheel racing.

His teams, with another daunting series of top-notch drivers, have also dominated at times, winning Indy three times and accumulating six championships, including an unprecedented four in a row (1996-99) in the now-defunct CART series.

But NASCAR has been the bane of both of these successful men.

Penske dabbled in stock car racing from 1972 to 1980, winning five races in a total of 99 starts during that period. But he came back with Rusty Wallace in a full-time ride in 1991 and has been striving for that first title ever since.

Wallace finished second in 1993 and third in 1994. His team has 55 wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500, but that performance by Wallace 16 years ago is as close as Penske has come to the big trophy in NASCAR.  He has 55 wins, including the 2008 Daytona 500.

Ganassi , partnering with longtime NASC AR owner Felix Sabates, has been on the stock car circuit since 2001. But his success has been limited to six wins – only one since 2002 – and no points finish better than Sterling Marlin’s third in 2001. In fact, none of his drivers have finished in the top 10 since.

But this could be the dawn of a new age in NASCAR for both Penske and Ganassi.

Former Cup champion Kurt Busch has put together a solid, if unspectacular season, for Penske Racing and is seeded seventh among the 12 drivers who qualified to race for the title in the Chase for the championship that beings Sunday in New Hampshire.

“When I came to this team, I was determined to give Roger his first NASCAR championship,’’ Busch said. “We’ve come up short in the past, but now we have a chance to do just that. ‘’

Juan Pablo Montoya, who gave Ganassi  a championship in CART and the 2000 victory at Indy, has completed his apprenticeship in NASCAR, putting  his boss into the Chase for the first time. He did that thanks to one of the most consistent seasons put together by any team in the series. Montoya is seeded ninth.

“Can we win the championship? I don’t know,’’ Montoya said after nailing down his spot in the Chase last weekend in Richmond. “We accomplished the first goal. We’ve been trying so hard to get in (the Chase) that now we have to see what we can do in these next 10 races, how strong we can run.’’

Maybe they’re not up there with Rick Hendrick or Jack Roush or Joe Gibbs quite yet, but Penske and Ganassi could be close to discovering some of that open-wheel magic in NASCAR. If so, watch out.

– Mike Harris was the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Associated Press and is now a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, September 19 2009
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