Chip Ganassi hits brakes on 20 years of NASCAR racing

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Veteran team owner Chip Ganassi said he is “100%” rooting for Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in Sunday’s season finale.

“Look, I’m fine with Larson and absolutely I am pulling for him,” Ganassi said. “It would prove what everybody has said all along — that he was going to be a champion someday.”

Larson, a nine-race winner this season and the title favorite, of course will not be racing for Ganassi at Phoenix Raceway. He drives for Hendrick Motorsports now.

What an ironic ending it would be if Larson goes and gets that big trophy on Ganassi’s final day in NASCAR. Ganassi brought Larson into the series from sprint cars and then developed him over nearly eight seasons, taking him right to the edge of superstardom.

The future of Ganassi’s NASCAR operation depended on Larson, but Ganassi fired him last year over Larson’s use of a racial slur. There wasn’t really any other decision to make. Ganassi could keep Larson or he could keep the sponsors that keep the lights on at the shop. Larson got a pink slip.

A year and half later, Ganassi will leave Phoenix with NASCAR in the rearview mirror. He sold his NASCAR operation to Trackhouse Racing. All of it belongs to Justin Marks and Pitbull as soon as the race is over.

Ganassi didn’t sell because he lost Larson. It was a free agent year, anyway, and there was no guarantee Larson wouldn’t move to Hendrick Motorsports. But it didn’t help.

The sponsorship market is tight and new business hard to find. Pitbull and Michael Jordan are now NASCAR team owners and Chip Ganassi Racing, in its 20th anniversary year, was no better than middle class.

Marks couldn’t get the NASCAR charters he needed for his own upstart team, so he bought an entire race team after cold-calling Ganassi. It’s been a fast-moving four months: CGR had a farewell luncheon at the shop Tuesday. Some employees will be hired by Trackhouse; some are out of luck.

That’s business.

“You could be melancholy if you want to be, but I look at it and see a lot of successes over the years,” Ganassi told The Associated Press this week.

“You never read about that, we never made the papers for that, but we grew great managers and great engineers and great mechanics,” he added. “And we did it over 20 years, so you know a lot of these people well and you see them grow and their families grow and their kids grow, and I’m very happy with what we did and what my legacy will be in NASCAR.”

The record book shows 24 Cup Series victories and 21 Xfinity Series wins, 53 poles and two All-Star race victories. Only having 24 wins and no championships suggests a team that couldn’t get over the hump to become one of NASCAR’s powerhouse organizations, but it was not a dry well.

The highlight was 11 years ago when Jamie McMurray returned to Ganassi and won the season-opening Daytona 500. McMurray won the Brickyard 400 that season, too, and coupled with Dario Franchitti’s victory in the Indianapolis 500 and a sports car win at Rolex 24 at Daytona to open the 2011 season, Ganassi became the only team owner to claim all those crown jewels in a 12-month period.

The 63-year-old Ganassi doesn’t own car dealerships, doesn’t run a global transportation business, doesn’t even make engines to sell to other race teams. The Ganassi engines in NASCAR come from Hendrick. He’s had sponsors come and go.

There is no single reason Ganassi is leaving NASCAR and he is certainly not leaving racing. Alex Palou’s championship in his first year of IndyCar in September was Ganassi’s 14th in American open wheel racing. Six of the sport’s legends have won titles for Ganassi, himself a former driver.

Ganassi will have four IndyCar teams next season, and he told AP he will run a fifth in the Indianapolis 500 for Jimmie Johnson.

Ganassi also returned to sports car competition this year and next season will field two full-time entries as IMSA prepares to return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And he has a team in the global Extreme E Series and was with that team two weeks ago in Italy.

Still, Ganassi hedged this week on whether he is done with NASCAR forever.

“I left IMSA and now I’m back at IMSA,” Ganassi said. “Who knows?”

It would take a significant financial guarantee. The sleepless nights, the debt, losing Larson, the DC financial mess — it just got tiring. For now, the NASCAR chapter has ended for Ganassi.

“This is racing, and you have those big ups and those big downs, and we had big downs. But you know what? The big ups we had outweighed the downs,” Ganassi said. “When I weighed everything, I just decided that moving forward was not the best decision. But it doesn’t mean I’m not racing and it doesn’t mean I can’t come back to NASCAR.”

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