Charlotte, N.C. — Felix Sabates pulled me over shortly before the July Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and predicted Juan Pablo Montoya would win. He was a speeding penalty on pit road from being right.
So it came as no surprise this week when the minority owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing made an even bigger prophecy.
«My prediction is [Montoya] is going to win the championship and Jimmie Johnson will finish second,» he said.
My, how times have changed.
A year ago, then-Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates wasn’t a threat to win anything. The organization had shut down one of its three cars for lack of sponsorship, sending Dario Franchitti and his celebrity wife, Ashley Judd, back to the Indy Racing League.
Losing Judd was a big loss for the sport. Sorry. Couldn’t go without saying that.
Near the end of the season, Reed Sorenson was on his way out as it became clear there wouldn’t be sponsor support for Ganassi to run more than one car. As Sabates noted, «We had no money.»
So Ganassi turned to Dale Earnhardt Inc., in a similar situation with sponsorship for only the No. 1 car of Martin Truex Jr. They merged their organizations and resources into a two-car team, Earnhardt Ganassi Racing, which ultimately cost more than a hundred people jobs.
It was an act of survival.
It easily is the biggest story of this season.
Bigger than Mark Martin’s challenging for his first title at age 50 or Jimmie Johnson’s going for an unprecedented fourth straight title.
What EGR and Montoya have accomplished heading into Sunday’s second race of the Chase at Dover, Del., epitomizes what NASCAR hoped when it introduced the new car three years ago. EGR has been the little engine that could, positioning itself for a title against powerhouses such as Hendrick Motorsports and Roush Fenway Racing that have far more money and personnel.
Sunday’s third-place finish at New Hampshire — and let’s be honest, Montoya had the best car and should have won — left NASCAR’s first Colombian-born star fourth in points, 55 behind Martin and only 20 behind Johnson and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.
Had somebody suggested before the season that this was possible, he would have been declared insane.
«If on January 1 you said the second week of September you’ll be in the Chase, sitting on the pole [at New Hampshire], leading the most laps and be close to winning the championship, they’d say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,'» said Steve Hmiel, EGR’s director of competition.
«You can tell we’re doing better because everybody is mad that we’re running third.»
Give Chip Ganassi, who co-owns the team with Teresa Earnhardt, much of the credit. Yes, I said credit. The same person who said Ganassi’s organization was in a state of disarray during the summer of 2008 is giving credit where credit is due.
Ganassi never wavered under intense criticism because his NASCAR program paled in comparison to his Indy Racing League and Grand-Am teams. He didn’t quit when sponsors pulled out and money to compete at the top level dried up.
He believed in the people he had hired and was willing to make the tough decisions to make things work.
«Chip is probably the biggest cheerleader any race team could ever have,» Sabates said. «He never loses his temper. He’s very even-keeled. So when things go bad, he doesn’t blow up. He looks at them very pragmatic and tries to come up with better solutions.» The better solution was to team with DEI, gaining access to the organization’s engine program with Richard Childress Racing and much-needed technology such as the seven-post shaker.
It seemed like a strange marriage at the outset — the pragmatic intruder from that open-wheel league joining the female owner most likely to be criticized for her lack of visibility.
But it’s worked, better than anybody outside of Ganassi and Hmiel would have guessed.
«The deal with Chip is you get what you get,» Hmiel said. «You go ask that guy something and he’ll say yes or no, and then he’ll explain why he said yes or no. He doesn’t believe in a bunch of fluff. He doesn’t believe in a bunch of B.S.
«His Indy car team was built with people working together. That’s what we’re trying to get here with virtually no ego. He doesn’t have to preach that. He lives that. You can just feel it.» What many forget is that this isn’t the first time Ganassi has challenged for a title in NASCAR’s premier series. Sterling Marlin finished third in points during the 2001 season and led the standings 26 races into the 2002 season before a severe neck injury three weeks later at Kansas sidelined him for the final seven events.
Even as late as 2005 Ganassi had his moments with Jamie McMurray finishing 12th in points before bolting for Roush Fenway Racing.
But in this world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, whether it was falling behind with the new car or the lack of sponsorship or manufacturer support or all of the above, Ganassi’s teams became the face of mediocrity.
In stepped Hmiel, who ironically came from DEI, where management wasn’t all that pleased with him. He helped make the hard decisions and got few results.
«The first part of 2007 was pretty miserable for anybody in management,» Hmiel said. «I’ve had conversations with Chip where he’s gone, ‘You’ve gotten rid of everybody else, it’s sink or swim with you.’ That’s a scary situation to have.»
Fortunately, Hmiel had Montoya, a former Formula One star most in the organization believed could be a Cup star once he learned the game. Pairing him with crew chief Brian Pattie last season — a move Montoya wasn’t too keen on — has turned a 20th-place team into a championship-contending team.
We won’t go into how Pattie came up with a formula for improving at every track and convinced Montoya that a steady diet of top-10s and top-15s would put him in position to win a title. That’s already been well documented, although it’s worth repeating Montoya’s 13 top-10s are four more than he had in his first two seasons combined.
What’s impressive is that EGR has accomplished all this with less than half the employees of HMS and with far less financial support from Chevrolet or sponsors.
They did it with a group of people willing to put aside their egos and the individuality of coming from two different organizations. They did it by putting all their effort into making one car the best they could and then making a lot of others just like it. «Some people fell by the wayside,» Hmiel said. «Some didn’t agree and had to go do something else. But the folks that stayed here and ground it out I think are real happy with the way things are going.»
And don’t think the effort has gone unnoticed in the rest of the garage.
«The story speaks for people,» Johnson said. «We’ve always said that the people make the difference. It’s such a true statement. NASCAR has worked very hard to make a very even playing ground. There is very little room to get out of line. «So it really boils down to the people in the sport and how they work together.»
Maybe that’s why Ganassi was so upset over my use of «disarray» to describe his organization when Franchitti’s team folded. Perhaps he understood that despite some growing pains, decisions were being made to put a driver like Montoya in the position he is in.
And don’t discount Montoya in all of this. Had he not bought into the program, none of this would have been possible despite his unbelievable talent and all Ganassi did to showcase it.
«I always believed in Chip,» Montoya said. «I know a lot of you guys don’t because you’ve seen Chip a long time here. The only reason Chip hired me to come and do this is because he believed I could do the job.»
The list of those who believe in Ganassi grows longer by the minute. Management at DEI certainly believed when it teamed with him.
«Chip is passionate, he’s a competitor and hates to lose,» DEI general manager Jeff Steiner said. «He knows it’s a tough road to win a championship in NASCAR, and he’s willing to work hard to get there.
«I’m not saying others aren’t willing to work hard, but Chip has a fire that’s critical if you want to win championships.»
Sabates believes in Ganassi as well. That’s why he’s willing to stick his neck out and make such bold predictions.
By the way, he also predicts the next time Martin checks up in front of Montoya on the final laps, the outcome will be much different.
«[Former NASCAR chairman] Bill France used to have a saying, ‘Don’t ask the question unless you know the answer already,'» Sabates said. «I don’t stick my neck out unless I think we’re going to win it.»
Times indeed have changed.
By David Newton, ESPN.com
September 23, 2009