Ganassi has right people in place to make Marlin a NASCAR circuit contender

Four-time CART champion takes on Winston Cup

Posted: Thursday, May 03, 2001

As a smiling Chip Ganassi strolled down pit lane, crewmen stopped working on their cars to watch or nod to NASCAR's famous newcomer.

They all wanted to acknowledge the car owner who's beginning to turn around a struggling Winston Cup team after winning a record four consecutive CART championships and last year's Indianapolis 500.

''People seem to know him here already,'' said Mike Hull, general manager for Ganassi's CART team. ''They know who he is and what he does.''

Heading into Saturday night's Winston Cup race in Richmond, Va., Ganassi's lead stock car driver, Sterling Marlin, is fifth in the standings and has six top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of the new regime.

Marlin, a two-time Daytona 500 winner, had become a virtual forgotten man the last few seasons driving for Felix Sabates. A self-made millionaire in the electronics distribution business, Sabates found it hard to translate that success to his racing operation.

Ganassi, looking for an opportunity to buy into -- or buy out -- an established team in NASCAR's top division, took more than 80 percent from Sabates. Then Ganassi brought in Andy Graves to work with Tony Glover as team managers, and switched from Chevrolet to Dodge.

''It's hard to believe with all the changes it all seemed to just come together,'' Marlin said. ''Chip has come in and put the right people in place.

''I really feel like we have a team that gives me the chance every weekend to drive into victory lane.''

Hull, who a month ago spent a NASCAR weekend with his boss in Texas, isn't surprised by Ganassi's quick adjustment from open-wheel racing to stock cars.

''Chip finds what we need when we need it,'' Hull said. ''There's not many owners around willing to do it for you and not spend their time micromanaging or standing over your shoulder. He lets everybody do the job they were hired for.''

That doesn't mean Ganassi is always smiling and happy. He can be tough and acerbic, particularly when things aren't going well.

Ganassi, who started as a race driver and was the fastest rookie at the 1982 Indianapolis 500, remains highly competitive and confident.

''Everybody's got their own style and I guess I have a way of doing things that sometimes makes people mad,'' he said. ''Most of the people I work with, though, seem to appreciate that I care about what I'm doing.

''I'm not here for the food or the fireworks. I'm here for the racing.''

Certain of that is Jimmy Vasser, who won the first of Ganassi's CART championships in 1996 but left after last season.

''There are people who like Chip,'' Vasser said. ''There are people who don't like him. But everybody agrees the man is a racer.''

Although rookie Jason Leffler hasn't fared nearly as well as Marlin and is 39th in the standings, Ganassi's team has been the most successful of the five that chose to go with Dodge in its return to Winston Cup after a 16-year-absence.

Ganassi hasn't been afraid to gamble on changes with his open-wheel team, either.

His decision to combine the then-new Honda engines with Reynard chassis and Firestone tires helped Ganassi win the CART titles.

He hasn't done so well since making another change last year, going with Toyota power plants and Lola chassis. Still, Ganassi went with Dodge in NASCAR, knowing it might not be so easy to get established.

''This whole thing has been a big learning curve,'' he said. ''A lot of times it's a blurred line where development of your team ends and the development of Dodge takes over.''

While still very involved in his CART team as well as running two cars in the IRL's Indy 500 again on May 27, Ganassi is thoroughly enjoying his new challenge.

''We're pleasantly surprised with the way things have gone so far,'' he said. ''If somebody told me we'd have Sterling in the top five in the points after 10 races ... well ... it's been great.''

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