Big Weekend For The ‘500 Club’ Members

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 29 2010

Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi and two of their good friends were in the spotlight at Indy on Friday. (Photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Indianapolis – The Indianapolis Motor Speedway garage area was packed with people on a sun-soaked Friday afternoon, with the biggest crowds  massed in front of two sets of garages.

At one end of Row 2, dozens of fans strained to get a glimpse of a familiar face in the Team Penske garages, while dozens more did the same in front of the Target Chip Ganassi Racing  garages at the other end of the row.

These are the two powerhouse teams with five of the top six drivers in Sunday’s 33-car field for the 94th Indianapolis 500. If one of that quintet doesn’t win the race, it will be considered a major upset.

But that’s nothing new. The team headed by Roger Penske has won the big event 15 times in 41 tries, while Ganassi, who raced here before he became a team owner in 1989, has three 500 victories as an owner.

Moreover, each of them has a team competing in NASCAR and both have a victory in stock car’s biggest event, the Daytona 500. Penske got his with Ryan Newman at the wheel in 2008, while Jamie McMurray gave Ganassi his first Daytona trophy in February and made him the only other owner to have had winning cars in both of the big races.

Penske realized the significance of McMurray’s win before Ganassi did.

“The night of the Daytona 500 I got a little text on my phone,’’ Ganassi said, grinning. “It said, `Welcome to the 500 Club. RP.’ I wrote back and just said, `Thanks.’ Then , the next day, it hit me what that was, the 500 Club. I thought, `Geez, that’s  a tiny club.’ ‘’

Over the years, Penske has generally had the edge on relative newcomer Ganassi. But a win here Sunday would give Ganassi something that Penske has never had – victories in both 500s in the same year.

“It would be a huge thing but it’s not something I think about,’’ Ganassi said. “I think, `This is a race I want to win right now.’ On that day (at Daytona), that was the race I wanted to win. But we all know why we’re here. Our team’s here to win the race.’’

Both of them love to win at whatever they do, but it’s also obvious they take special delight in beating each other – and giving each other a hard time.

Penske used a bit of gamesmanship last Saturday to assure Castroneves of the pole, keeping him warming up on track near the end of the time trials while Franchitti waited fruitlessly for one last opportunity to take the track for a final pole qualifying effort.

A hot Gannassi called it “dirty pool’’ and worse. But Friday, the anger was long gone.

“Obviously, the guy sitting next to me is the one that we have to beat every weekend, whether it’s here at Indianapolis or certainly at Daytona or Charlotte,’’ Penske said.

“We’ve had a good rivalry and we’re friends,’’ he added. “He’s supported us in a number of areas when we needed it and vice-versa. I tell you, if he needed a car for some reason at a racetrack, he could have one of ours.’’

Ganassi smiled and replied:  “Where were you Saturday?’’

Turning serious, Ganassi  said, “We know he’s the guy I have to beat. He’s the team we’re going to have to beat on Sunday to walk away with the Borg-Warner Trophy.’’

On race day, three-time and reigning Indy winner Helio Castroneves will start from the pole for the fourth time, with Penske teammate Will Power alongside and Ganassi driver Dario Franchitti on the outside of the front row.

Veteran Alex Tagliani will be sandwiched in the second row by Penske’s Ryan Briscoe and Ganassi’s Scott Dixon. Both Franchitti and Dixon are former Indy winners.

“There’s another 28 cars out there that can win this race, many drivers out probably in the first three or four rows,’’ Penske noted. “So it’s going to be the one who doesn’t make mistakes.’’

That’s exactly the way it worked last year when  Dixon  and Franchitti led 123 of the 200 laps but wound up sixth and seventh, respectively, after mistakes in the pits cost them a shot at winning.

Briscoe and Castroneves led the rest of the laps.

“I have loads of respect for Roger and for Chip,’’ Franchitti said. “For both of them it’s all about preparation. You know, whatever else happens Sunday, both teams will be ready.’’

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, May 29 2010
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