CHARLOTTE — Jamie McMurray has been around Chip Ganassi long enough to know what he cares about: winning, his people, and winning.
Once admittedly intimidated by the blunt and sometimes-gruff owner, McMurray now considers him a friend more than an employer. So after having watched Ganassi labor to elevate his NASCAR operation to the lofty standard his open wheel operation has maintained for decades, McMurray knows and appreciates what this month of May means to him symbolically.
A driver on the pole for the Indianapolis 500 and in provisionally leading the Verizon IndyCar Series points standings ahead of Sunday's race.
A driver leading the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, with his teammate in fifth place.
His World Endurance Championship GTE-Pro class team is atop the standings and soon will try to defend a LeMans category victory.
And although the 59-year-old owner doesn’t enunciate it, McMurray surmises, he cares very much about being favorably compared with natural rival Team Penske. Both organizations field teams in NASCAR and IndyCar, where each vies for prime talent that yield wins and championships. Penske has developed after 45 seasons into a weekly competitive, championship-winning Cup organization. And after 16 seasons of fits and starts, Ganassi’s organization appears to have finally established a sustainable foothold in stock cars.
And it’s May, the most important month in open wheel racing and a milepost in the NASCAR season when alleged contenders must begin to sort themselves out. McMurray sees the symmetry and covets his part.
“Chip obviously has the same background with Roger [Penske] on the IndyCar thing and their Cup programs are pretty solid for the past few years, so I am so thankful that ours [is improving],” he told USA TODAY Sports. “I mean, to me, I feel like if you were to poll the garage, the Penske and Ganassi cars are probably the best each week, consistently. So I’m really happy to get to be a part of that. Pretty awesome.
“There’s always a little rivalry there, whether either of those two would ever admit it. You know, absolutely there is.”
Entering the Memorial Day weekend, Ganassi leads the Cup Series standings with Kyle Larson and would top the IndyCar standings if the series awarded Scott Dixon his 42 bonus points for winning the Indianapolis 500 pole before the race began. Officially, the four-time series champion is 10 points behind Team Penske’s defending series champion, Simon Pagenaud.
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Larson currently leads the Cup standings by 44 points entering the Coca-Cola 600 on Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway with McMurray in fifth, matching Larson’s seven top-10s in 11 starts. A seven-time race winner in 521 Cup starts, McMurray has never finished better than 11th in the final standings, and has never been higher in points since 2010, when he won the season-opening Daytona 500 and clung to fourth after finishing 17th the next week. He’s never been this high in the standings this far into a season.
Larson has led the standings — for the first time in his four-year Cup career — since finishing second in the fourth race of the season at Phoenix. With each passing week that he remains the leader, he perpetuates a startling statistic regarding Ganassi’s Cup arc: none of his drivers have led this late into a season since Sterling Marlin after the 26th event of the 2002 season.
That title bid came undone when Marlin, who led the standings for 25 weeks, crashed at Richmond to finish 43rd, then was 21st in consecutive races before wrecking into a 33rd-place finish at Kansas and ceding the No. 40 Dodge to then 26-year-old McMurray because of fractured neck vertebra. McMurray, then racing in the Xfinity Series with Brewco Motorsports and who had been signed to race a third Ganassi Cup car in 2003, made his Cup debut with Ganassi in 2002 and won his second career start, in the fall race at Charlotte .
McMurray has seen every Ganassi NASCAR season since from the inside — except for a more financially lucrative but professionally disastrous term at Roush Fenway Racing from 2006-2009 that he calls “the worst four years of my life” — and this, he said, is the best the organization has ever been. The team is more consistent, more capable of winning, he said, although Larson has their only victory so far, at Fontana, Calif.
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“I always refer back to 2010,” McMurray said, “because historically that’s probably been my best year with big races wins and the most wins (3) in a year, but I can remember, it was my first year back and I can remember talking to some guys in the shop saying, ‘Man, it’s amazing how fast our cars are,’ and I’ll never forget one of the guys said, ‘Yeah, but we’re not real sure why.’
“I remember that and I wondered why they don’t know why. And then we went to 2011 and we weren’t quite as good and 2012 was horrible and they started this whole rebuilding process.”
Max Jones, hired by then-Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing late in 2011 as managing director of its NASCAR program, said the reorganization was a methodical attempt to replicate what the IndyCar program had built in a 11-year head start over the stock car program: find the proper niches for current employees, “let some people go who maybe didn’t believe in what we were trying to achieve.”
“They’re the Yankees of IndyCar,” Jones said of a Ganassi program that has won 11 championships and the Indianapolis 500 four times. “So good people want to go to work there, and you can attract good drivers. Chip’s been able to do that really well. I think when this organization wasn’t at that level, it was really hard to attract ‘A’ players, drivers. It takes that stair step.”
The most recent stair step made itself apparent to Larson at a spring test at Pocono Raceway in 2016. A new fleet of race cars were improvements over their predecessors. McMurray noticed Larson began to lead practices by the summer, compete better in races. That engineers expressed a confidence and understanding of why this was happening was encouraging for McMurray, and proved beyond sustainable with their mutual start to the 2017.
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“I don’t get into ‘why,’’ but I think every department has gotten better,” Larson said. “If you can make every department two percent better, that’s a pretty substantial gain. Jamie is more into the mechanical side so he probably has a better idea on that stuff.
“To be where we’re at, at a fairly short amount of time to challenging for wins is awesome.”
Though Jones’ purview is competitive, he knows on-track results impact sponsorships. Dixon is without a full-time benefactor after Target left the IndyCar program after 27 years, and the retailer’s contract to serve as primary sponsor of Larson’s car is expiring, making this, he said, a timely uptick in performance
“When you’re running on the competitive side that well, that helps the commercial side a lot,” Jones said. “People that are talking about coming into the sport talk to us. People that are talking about moving from team to team are talking to us. It’s a healthy time for the organization.”
And for Ganassi, too. He appears, McMurray and Jones said, to be allowing him self to enjoy it.
“Chip’s in a really good place right now,” Jones said. “He’s really happy. I think he’s finally feeling what we’ve been working toward, and we’ve arrived there. That’s not to get too excited. You arrive and you get complacent, so I don’t think that. But it’s great timing for the organization.”
Follow James on Twitter @brantjames
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