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Ganassi Has Tough Act To Follow

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 24 2011

Chip Ganassi and driver Juan Pablo Montoya head down pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Charlotte, N.C. – As bright and shining as the possibilities are for the 2011 racing season, Chip Ganassi  grows a little wistful when he thinks about 2010.

“I’ve got to be honest with you, I didn’t want the year to end,’’ Ganassi  said Monday during the first event of the 29th annual NASCAR Media Tour hosted by Charlotte Motor Speedway.  “But we’ve flipped the page now and it’s time to get back to work.’’

Last year, Ganassi’s IndyCar team, led by Dario Franchitti, won both the Indianapolis 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series championship, his Rolex Series Grand Am team won that championship and Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, of which Ganassi is the managing partner, had a solid year.

Jamie McMurray, returning to Ganassi’s NASCAR team for a second stint after a not-so-successful few years with Roush Fenway Racing, was the surprise of 2010 with three very big victories, taking the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the fall race at Charlotte. Juan Pablo Montoya got back into the winner’s circle, taking the checkered flag on the road course at Watkins Glen. The two Cup drivers also combined for seven poles.

The only real disappointments for Ganassi  last year were finishing second in the season-opening

Chip Ganassi at work. (Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Rolex 24 at Daytona, a race his team had won four straight times, and that face that neither McMurray nor Montoya made it into the 12-man Chase for the Cup championship.

And there’s plenty to be optimistic about as the new season approaches, including on the business side of the ledger, where many other teams in NASCAR and other series have taken big hits the past two years.

Despite a still weak economy, EGR managed to keep all of its primary sponsors in place as well as adding a pair of associate sponsors to McMurray’s car – Liftmate, a garage door opener company, and Widia, a European-based manufacturer of precision metalworking applications.

Ganassi has managed to keep his association with principle sponsor Target going for a 22nd straight year and with Energizer for a 16th consecutive year – a record that a lot of other teams would love to duplicate. Several other associated sponsors have been with the team for eight years or more.

“I love the fact we’ve been able to cultivate long-term partnerships,’’ Ganassi  said. “It certainly means we’re doing something right.’’

On the competition side, the goal is to have an even better season in 2011 than in 2010, which will take some doing. But Ganassi  knows there is still lots of work to be done.

“There are lots of place we can improve,’’ he said. “I think about that all the time, not just at the end of the season. It’s important to be constantly looking at yourself in the mirror.’’

Longtime partner Felix Sabates said the reason Ganassi is successful is because of his measured approach to the sport.

“He is unselfish,’’ Sabates said. “Chip never talks about himself. All he wants to do is win.’’

NASCAR Media Tour notes from Monday:

No shocker: Jamie McMurray says last season was a breakthrough year in many ways.

Jamie McMurray won the two biggest races of the 2010 season. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Not only did he get those three big Cup wins, but he became a father on Thanksgiving Day. But, other than the birth of his son, McMurray says the win at Charlotte may have been the most gratifying event of the year.

“When I walked into the media center at Daytona after the 500, everybody was saying, `Congratulations, Jamie. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.’ The same thing happened after I won the Brickyard.

“But, after the Charlotte race, I walked in and it was like, `Oh, it’s Jamie.’ It was the coolest feeling ever that you (media) guys weren’t shocked that I won.’’

Hmiel improving: Steve Hmiel, managing director of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, said Monday that son Shane, who was badly injured in a sprint car crash last October in Terre Haute, Ind., is making great strides in his recovering and rehabilitation.

The 30-year-old driver suffered a spinal column injury and was paralyzed. But his father said the youngster, who is in the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, is making great strides.

“It really was an ugly situation when he first arrived there,’’ Steve Hmiel said. “He was breathing with a ventilator and was a quadriplegic. Now he breathes on his own and is moving everything,  his arms, his hands. He can wiggle his toes and raise his feet.

“He’s able to talk on the phone and hold a conversation. There’s still a long way to go. He has to relearn how to walk and write. It will probably take a complete year to get to walking with crutches or a walker.

“There therapy is slower than I’d like to see but, regardless of how long it takes, he’s still Shane.’’

Slimming down: It was a slim and trim Tony Stewart who greeted the media Monday when the tour visited Stewart Haas Racing shop in suburban Concord.

Asked if he was working out, Stewart joked, “Yeah, this (right) hand controls the volume and this (left) hand controls the channels.’’

Turning serious, Stewart acknowledged he is not only working out more, he has made a major change in his diet, eating five small meals a day instead of two big ones.

“I’m just  eating a lot smarter these days,’’ the two-time Sprint Cup champion noted.

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

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, January 24 2011
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