Brant James
Wednesday July 23rd, 2008

Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a touchstone for Ganassi Racing and cordial rival Penske, the backdrop for much of the glory that has defined the storied open wheel teams.

Roger Penske has won 303 races, 21 major national championships and a record 14 Indianapolis 500s. His open wheel teams have won 12 of those titles and 136 of the races, including Ryan Briscoe's second IndyCar victory of the season last week at Mid-Ohio.

Chip Ganassi has won 100 races and seven championships -- five in open wheel, including four straight CART titles - and three Indy 500s. Sixty-two of those wins were open wheel and a record 20 came in the Grand Am Series. Scott Dixon leads the IndyCar points standings and has four victories, including the Indianapolis 500.

Whereas Ganassi and Penske are titans of the yard of bricks in May, their race teams' summer visit simply underscores the disparity between their open wheel and stock car programs. Penske has been a full-time NASCAR owner since 1991, winning 59 races -- 37 with the now-retired Rusty Wallace. He's yet to win a championship and although he's raised more Borg-Warner trophies than any owner, NASCAR's biggest prize, the Daytona 500, had eluded him until Ryan Newman captured it this past February.

And even that glow didn't last long. Newman, a nine-year company man, complained about performance throughout the spring and announced last week he will not return after his contract expires this fall. For Newman, there is frustration that his team was once, by his estimation, dominant when it won eight races in 2003 and he finished a career-best sixth for the second of three times. That such an organization could so lose its way -- winning 11 races and 26 poles from 2002-04 but only once, with 15 poles, from 2005-07 - is one reason he opted to leave.

"The stats speak for themselves, but going back to 2003, we were a dominant race car," Newman said. "We were a dominant race team. We were a dominant organization from our engine standpoint, from just pure stats. That's awesome. We just aren't dominant right now and that cycles. Maybe it'll cycle again for Penske Racing and maybe it'll cycle for a new team. You just never know."

And therein lies the conundrum. How could such a learned, experienced, successful team succumb to such a down cycle? Newman wielded Penske's long-standing mantra like a hammer: "Roger Penske always says ... it says right on his website: Effort equals results. If you're not getting your results, then you question the effort."

Penske Performance president Tim Cindric admitted internal frustration over the team's results but said, "I don't think there's any one thing you can say we haven't done right. Nobody in the Penske organization is satisfied with where we are and we are absolutely putting things in place to improve the results."

Ganassi doesn't even humor the question anymore of why success in one regimen has not translated to another.

"Every week somebody asks me that," he said, "and I'm really sort of getting tired of that question."

Ganassi, who opened his NASCAR program in 2000, has made numerous driver changes and won just six Sprint Cup races in 690 starts. Dixon and teammate Dan Wheldon have won that many races since the beginning of the 2007 season.

Luring former CART and Indy 500-winner Juan Pablo Montoya from Formula One was a major coup, especially after the Colombian won Sprint Cup and Nationwide races as a rookie last season. But the team has bogged down this year at 20th in points (teammate Reed Sorenson is 32nd) and has gone through three crew chiefs.

Ganassi coaxed 2007 IRL champion and Indy 500-winner Dario Franchitti from Andretti Green Racing to become a NASCAR rookie at age 35, but the Scot languished. He missed five races after breaking a bone in his ankle in a Nationwide crash at Talladega, failed to qualify for two others (including the Sonoma road course where Montoya won last year), finished better than 32nd only once in 10 starts, and had his No. 40 Dodge program shuttered two weeks ago with 71 employees laid off and Franchitti's future put in limbo. Ganassi said a "difficult climate" economically was to blame, not Franchitti.

Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time IRL champion who won Penske's first championship in the series in 2006, said expecting elite success in NASCAR is unfair even though the organization has raced stock cars full time for 17 years. Wallace, the 1989 series champion with Raymond Beadle, finished in the top 10 in points in 11 of his 15 years with Penske, and was runner-up in 1993.

"It's hard for any organization to have the kind of success that Roger's had in the IndyCar racing," Hornish said. "I think the (New York) Yankees are about the only thing that has anything going close to that.

"Of course, the NASCAR program may be a little behind that, but that's part of why I wanted to come over here. I would love to see the day when they are competing for race wins every time we go out, competing for championships every year. You can get big wins like the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 and the Coke 600 and all that stuff constantly. That's part of trying to grow this team and I think we continue to try and head in the right direction. It takes time. It's not a switch-of-the-switch thing."

Penske began quartering his IRL, NASCAR and American Le Mans series teams together in a massive Mooresville, NC, shop in early in 2007, hoping that a "cross-pollination" of ingenuity would benefit all of his programs. The open wheel and sport car teams have continued to flourish and Newman's Daytona 500 victory made Penske the first owner to win that race and the 12 Hours of Sebring in the same season. But cross-pollination is difficult to exploit given NASCAR's rigid rules.

"It's tough because the cars are so much different, what you can do with them," said Hornish Jr., who on Sunday could become the first to win both the Indianapolis 500 and Allstate 400. "Everything is computerized on an IndyCar and you're not allowed to run a computer on a stock car for race weekends. It's a lot different. There's so many things that are different that you can't really translate over. But I think having the two down there will definitely help trying to find the right people to put into certain positions."

Wheldon, too, thinks Ganassi will eventually find his way in stock cars, if for no other reason force of cantankerous will.

"I think what he'd really like to see on the NASCAR side is to have the kind of chemistry he has on the IndyCar side," Wheldon observed. "He'd like to have that same thing down South, and it's difficult to get. I think, to be quite honest, knowing him as an owner it must just tear him up because he's competitive.

"I still believe, though -- and people might call me stupid for saying this -- that he'll turn it around eventually. He can't not. He's too driven to let it go on like that. There's no way he would let it continue to happen."

The quandary, Ganassi said, is finding sponsorship to fund victory. Though Ganassi does have a few ancillary business interests, he does not have the kind diversified empire that top owners like Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Joe Gibbs can fall back upon in such a difficult economic climate.

A Forbes magazine study recently valued Hendrick Motorsports at $335 million and Roush Fenway Racing at $313 million, making them the two most valuable in NASCAR. Penske was valued at $100 million and Ganassi at $94 million, leaving them in mid-pack. Still, wealth is no guarantee. Penske is one of America's 400 richest persons according to Forbes, worth an estimated $2.7-billion and he associates himself with major corporations as sponsors.

Even though the process of finding a sponsor for Franchitti was made more difficult because it began late last season, a team must win to procure sponsors. Franchitti was hardly attractive in that regard as he attempted a rushed learning process. A team can't win without a sponsor.

"It's the chicken and the egg. Which comes first?" Ganassi pondered.

If victory comes first, especially at Indianapolis, well, that would crack a lot of eggs. And there is reason for optimism at both Ganassi and Penske this weekend. The Speedway seems welcome to the idea of forgiving its giants their stock car transgressions. Wallace finished second three times for Penske (1995, 2000, 2002). Sterling Marlin was second for Ganassi in 2001. Montoya, the 2000 Indy 500 winner, was second in his first NASCAR race there last summer.

All of which has Hornish Jr. anticipating another taste of rubber and bricks.

"I'd love to be the first guy to kiss the bricks after winning the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400," he said. "I know it's a long shot, but I am looking forward to hopefully having a real good day."

And those bricks could become touchstones.

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