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Ryan: Chip Ganassi perfectly suited for shepherding Kyle Larson’s career, and the Michigan win showed why

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Owning a NASCAR team is a stressful business, which was best exemplified by Chip Ganassi’s celebration of Kyle Larson’s victory Sunday at Michigan International Speedway.

As he pounded on the shoulders, faces and backs of crew chief, driver, engineer and anyone who happened to be clad in a red-and-white uniform within arm’s length of his hammering fists, Ganassi engaged in the most demonstrative paroxysm of nationally televised stress relief in NASCAR history.

The moment was pure Ganassi, whose gruff and hard-boiled exterior belies the fact that he delicately and deftly is juggling the oversight of enough racing teams to qualify for lifetime FIA membership.

So what might be on the mind lately of the owner of entries in Cup, Xfinity, IMSA, IndyCar and the World Endurance Championship?

Oh, not much.

–After already contractually guaranteeing Larson the right to run 25 races annually on dirt — but never the night before a Cup race — Ganassi lifted a restriction and allowed his franchise driver another shot to race a vehicle whose accepted occupational hazards include a propensity for violently flipping end over end.

–Ganassi acquiesced to that request (after constant fan goading on social media) while still hunting for a primary sponsor to replace the eight-figure void being left by Target next year on Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet.

–Meanwhile, Ganassi’s IndyCar team has managed to win only one of the first 13 races of the season, and reliable championship contender Scott Dixon just fell out of the points lead (for the first time in two months) with four races remaining.

That would seem a lot of stress, but it goes with the territory for Ganassi, whose public persona sometimes is a rough-around-the-edges and sometimes combative forcefulness that has carried his teams through sponsor departures and disappointing seasons.

On the morning of last month’s Brickyard 400, he berated a reporter who wrote Larson’s team had been “tainted” by multiple run-ins with NASCAR officials earlier this summer. It isn’t the first time Ganassi, who voraciously consumes the auto racing media’s coverage (which doesn’t go unappreciated by those of us who talk or write about the sport), has taken umbrage at how a reporter has characterized one of his teams.

This is another thing to know about Ganassi’s working relationships: As fiercely as he celebrates with them, he also stands up for his guys.

Most importantly, he stands up for Larson, who is a critical key to the future of American auto racing.

Other NASCAR team owners covet him, but there is no better caretaker than Ganassi – and not just because he dipped into his own cash reserves (which don’t run as deep as those belonging to Roger Penske or Rick Hendrick and their billion-dollar automotive empires) to get Larson’s signature on an iron-clad (but lucrative) contract for several years.

The bond between driver and owner started six years ago when Ganassi saw enough of the generational talent in Larson to invest in a path to Cup without the benefit of sponsor money when no one else would. It was a shrewd move (just as it was to accelerate Larson into Cup after a season in Xfinity) that might fall short of ever receiving proper credit because its ramifications could be so far-reaching.

Larson, 25, is a linchpin to the NASCAR youth movement, which will be punctuated when he wins his first championship (and he might be the 2017 title favorite if he reaches the final round given his sterling record and affinity for Homestead-Miami Speedway).

But he is nearly as important to the growth and progress of racing in this country. He currently is the most rock-solid bridge between big-league auto racing and grass-roots short tracks. When Larson runs the Indianapolis 500 (and Ganassi’s capitulation on the Knoxville Nationals last week shows it’s only a matter of time), he will cement his reputation as his generation’s answer to Foyt or Andretti, the legends who can win in any vehicle they choose to wheel.

The last two restarts at Michigan reaffirmed that Larson’s talent is undeniable, but it also has needed proper nurturing for an emerging star who didn’t come from a racing family steeped in the connections and knowledge to secure the necessary breaks to break through in modern-day NASCAR. Larson probably could have been successful with any team, but it’s hard to envision his development in stock cars going more seamlessly than with Ganassi.

It’s taken the unwavering belief and support of a team owner (with the mentality of a former driver) who must be mindful of balancing Larson’s personal happiness with his vested interests in the good of Chip Ganassi Racing, along with the greater good of spreading the racing gospel.

That’s a lot of pressure to shoulder for Ganassi, who spent the past couple seasons tailoring his Cup organization to maximize the prodigious ability of Larson.

Chip deserves a slap on the back.

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While the primary motivation for permitting moonlighting in sprint cars is Larson’s contentment, there might be ancillary advantages for Ganassi’s Cup teams – namely, Larson’s performance on restarts.

When Tony Stewart won the 2011 championship, his memorable late-season surge of five victories in 10 races was made on the strength of some impressive restarts (notably his race-winning move on Jimmie Johnson at Martinsville Speedway). The three-time champion (and some of his crew chiefs) credited his side trips to dirt tracks (which are filled with shorter feature races and many opportunities for timing a flag) with helping sharpen his anticipation for pounding the accelerator. The opportunity to race on dirt at his leisure was a major reason he became a driver-owner at Stewart-Haas Racing (he was restricted at Joe Gibbs Racing).

It’s worth asking if the extracurricular dirt racing has made a similar impact on Larson, whose Michigan win excised the memory of some disappointing restarts that cost him wins in races bookending the 2016 and ’17 seasons. Though the start of Sunday’s race might have been among the most disappointing of his career, he was on his game when it mattered.

Beyond the track, Ganassi’s decision to allow Larson to run Knoxville was a social media hit, both in the unveiling via dual videos by Ganassi and Larson to the traction from the #LetKyleRace hashtag. That can’t hurt a team searching for a sponsor.

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Seemingly all of the focus for how Larson won Michigan was on the final restart, but as Steve Letarte explained on NASCAR America this week, it was the previous restart and crew chief Chad Johnston’s strategy that positioned him for the win.

But while waiting to pit for four tires was critical, the team also caught a break with the final caution – after Larson went from eighth to fourth in five laps on four tires, culminating in the critical pass of Chase Elliott that put him in fourth and in the preferred outside lane for last green flag

As Motorsports Analytics’ David Smith noted (and Larson took some issue with), Sunday also was another example of the No. 42 having good fortune on restarts – though Larson certainly has seized the opportunities.

Michigan definitely was in the top five for greatest restarts in 2017 … but the final two restarts at Indianapolis (where Kasey Kahne and Brad Keselowski both made passes for the lead) also deserve consideration for the season’s best.

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On the flip side, the most jaw-dropping turn of events at Michigan happened before the final restart. Brad Keselowski led a race-high 105 of 202 laps and seemed destined for the first victory at his home track until a cascading set of calls left his No. 2 Ford in 17th.

After Keselowski dominated the first half, crew chief Paul Wolfe devoted his strategy in the second half to chasing Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn. It started when Truex won the second stage by (unintentionally?) short-pitting and leap-frogging from fifth to first (ostensibly, the stop was for a tire problem but was just a few laps ahead of the rest of the contenders).

Keselowski never regained his mojo after that point despite a few gambits by Wolfe. The first was pitting under caution on Lap 140 and re-emerging in 10th as the first car on four tires – but it hardly worked in gaining the necessary ground. When Truex pitted from the lead on Lap 160, Keselowski hadn’t built enough of a cushion to put him a lap down.

So Keselowski pitted again on Lap 162 but for only two tires – and yet still lost the lead to Truex, who had taken four. That left Keselowski obligated to pit for two tires again when the yellow flew on Lap 188 — thus making three pit stops to Truex’s one in the final 60 laps despite having a faster car for most of the race.

At least it seemed much faster until Truex won the second stage and somehow managed to dictate the rhythm of the race despite taking his first lead on Lap 114. Keselowski explained “he didn’t really have enough” to run with Truex so, “we tried a little strategy to kind of get something out of it, but the way it all played out I ended up getting the bottom lane on the restarts and getting absolutely swallowed. We tried. We put in as much effort as we could.”

It was reminiscent of what has been Wolfe and Keselowski’s modus operandi whenever they’ve been at peak operating levels – get the competition off their games. Five years ago at Michigan, they outwitted Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus with pit strategy, a precursor to Keselowski’s maverick charge to the 2012 championship.

It was the first sign that the bewitching spell Johnson and Knaus held over NASCAR for several years seemed to be waning … just as it eventually did for their Hendrick Motorsports forebears Ray Evernham and Jeff Gordon after their “Refuse to Lose” heyday.

Truex and Pearn now seem to be the sublime combination of crew chief and driver whose strategy plays and flawless execution have rivals spun out. Though the speed of their No. 78 Toyota has been undisputed, it’s not the only reason the Furniture Row Racing duo has become the weekly focus of the Cup garage.

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If Danica Patrick seems happier lately (despite an uncertain future in racing), it’s because she is.

In the latest episode of the NASCAR on NBC podcast, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver discussed how she transformed her outlook on life.

“I just don’t feel the weight of anything anymore,” Patrick said. “I don’t feel angry about anything. It’s just gone. There’s plenty of things I look back and I’m like, ‘That sucked, but whatever. I’m going to go on.’ And the things that make you happiest are free.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts by clicking here.

It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

The free subscriptions will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone.

Long: Sign of the times – Young drivers are in, veterans are on their way out

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Whether 19-year-old William Byron is ready for Cup doesn’t matter. He’ll be there next year for Hendrick Motorsports because he fills a need.

He’s young, talented and less expensive than a veteran driver.

So Kasey Kahne is out and Byron is in. That’s not the only such move for next season. Rookie Erik Jones will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports.

Those mirror other moves made in the last few years, creating a seismic shift in the driver lineup — one that hadn’t been seen in nearly half a century.

With Byron’s move to Cup, there will be at least eight drivers 25 and under who are expected take the green flag in next year’s Daytona 500.

They are (with age they’ll be for next year’s 500):

William Byron (age 20)

Erik Jones (21)

Chase Elliott (22)

Ryan Blaney (24)

Alex Bowman (24)

Chris Buescher (25)

Ty Dillon (25)

Kyle Larson (25)

Only this year’s race with 11 drivers age 25 and under and last year’s race at nine have had more young drivers in the field than next year’s race looks to have. The record could be equaled or topped next year with 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., looking for a ride and the possibility that smaller teams may go with young drivers. Nearly half the field for next year’s 500 could feature drivers in their 20s.

This shift toward youth has built since 2014 when there were eight drivers age 25 and under in the Daytona 500 starting lineup. The last time there had been so many young drivers in the “Great American Race” was 1962. That race saw 24-year-old Richard Petty finish second and 22-year-old Cale Yarborough place last in the 48-car field.

The latest changes come as young drivers replace veterans partly because of economics. It’s a shift for car owners, who responded during the recession a decade ago by cutting driver development programs and hiring veterans for lower salaries. The chance to run in Cup ended for many drivers. Those that did run, had little luck. Only one Cup Rookie of the Year from 2008-12 remains in the series (Joey Logano).

Now, as the sport goes through what some refer to as a correction, sponsors are cutting back more. Less money to teams means less money for drivers. Young racers are significantly cheaper.

“You’ve got a lot of young guys coming in being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid,’’ Earnhardt said last weekend at Watkins Glen International. “That’s money that can go into the team, you know? These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money that they used to. So, the owners and everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to dial it back.’’

Furniture Row Racing car owner Barney Visser puts it more succinctly: “I would think that there are going to be a lot of jets sold (by drivers). The money just won’t support what some of these guys have been making. The sponsorship just won’t carry it right now.”

Even for as talented as the new generation is, it’s taken them time to succeed for various reasons. Ty Dillon, Bowman, Elliott and Jones have yet to win a Cup race. Buescher won in his 27th career start. Blaney scored his first victory in his 68th series start. Larson didn’t win until his 100th series start. Austin Dillon’s first win came in his 133rd series start.

“It’s just such a big step altogether that there’s nothing in the Truck or Xfinity Series I think that fully prepares you for what it takes to really be successful at the Cup level,’’ said Jones, whose best finish is third in 25 career Cup starts. “I think it’s been just really a whole year of relearning for me, not really relearning but just learning more about the Cup Series and what it takes and how to race these guys.’’

It’s not as much what happens on the track and what happens off it that has been an adjustment for Jones to Cup.

You get to the Cup Series, your week is slammed, and you don’t really ever experience that when you’re in the Xfinity or the Truck Series,’’ Jones said. “I wish I would have learned to study and prepare more for the weekend because I never really did when I was in Xfinity and Truck. I just kind of learned more about that and still am trying to learn more about that as the year goes on.’’

That’s led to questions about Byron because of his lack of experience — even with the success he’s had. He ran 24 Truck races (winning seven) and he’s run 20 Xfinity races (three wins) so far.

“William, he has surprised us every time he gets in a car,’’ Hendrick said. “My goal is to not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn and we’ll try to get better as an organization. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson … he will be a mentor to all three of them (Byron, Elliott and Bowman). We still have Jeff Gordon involved and Dale Earnhardt is going to be involved.

“They’ve got a lot of coaches. The main thing is just not putting too much pressure on them and let them go out and learn. If William continues to do what he’s done in every series he’s been in, he’ll adapt fine and he’ll learn. You might as well let him learn in what he’s going to be driving for years to come.’’

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Jimmie Johnson says duels with Kyle Larson “intense” but not personal

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Jimmie Johnson says his duels with Kyle Larson this season have “been intense’’ but he’s just racing Larson the way the youngster races him.

Last week, Larson said he “wasn’t happy with the block” Johnson put on him down the backstretch at Indianapolis. It was one of a few battles between the drivers this season, including a block Johnson put on Larson at Martinsville and a last-lap pass Larson made on Johnson in the All-Star Race.

“Truth be told, I just race people how they race me,’’ Johnson said Saturday morning at Watkins Glen International. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Kyle Larson or Martin Truex, Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart. It doesn’t matter. There’s that environment on the track. Through the course of the year, it’s been intense with the 42 at times, so I’ve been able to race him back the same way.’’

Johnson cited stage racing as a reason for more intensity on the track this season.

“In stage racing today, we have to block and maintain and hold position more than ever,’’ Johnson said.”To see the extent that some drivers have gone through, even myself, to maintain track position, I said it after Indy (that) Mark Martin would have a heart attack if he was racing in this era. The game has changed.

“I have had nothing personal towards Kyle. I don’t think he’s had anything personal towards me. You just get into that environment of racing people how they race you and certain scenarios exist where you need to fight for that position for whatever reason. It is what it is. It’s a product of stage racing. I think NASCAR  should be happy they created a more intense environment because that’s really what it is.’’

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NASCAR team owner says sport should enact a spending cap

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Andrew Murstein, co-owner of Richard Petty Motorsports, says NASCAR team owners need to agree to a spending cap to create a “level playing field’’ in the Cup Series.

“Every single league has a cap now these days, it creates a level playing field,’’ Murstein told NBC Sports. “It’s salaries … its wind-tunnel time, it’s the whole kit and caboodle. It’s better for the fans, I think, if there is a level playing field. No one can outspend the other guy. It’s better for the owners. It creates more competition, more excitement.’’

Murstein’s comments might seem hollow in a season that has seen 10 consecutive different winners heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Watkins Glen International. Nine different teams have won Cup races this year with no organization winning more than four races.

That balance appears to be an anomaly. In nine of the previous 10 seasons, one organization won more than 25 percent of the races each year. Joe Gibbs Racing won 38.9 percent of the races in 2015 — the highest percentage since Hendrick Motorsports won 50 percent of the races in 2007 with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Casey Mears.

Murstein, founder and president of Medallion Financial Corp., said he raised his points about a spending cap to NASCAR Chairman Brian France at a dinner last month in New York that included John Tisch, owner of the NFL’s New York Giants.

“(Tisch) was shedding a lot of light on why that league was so successful,” Murstein said, “both from fan interests and from the economics of the sport.’’

Murstein said France appeared open to his ideas “if we came up with some more details.’’

NASCAR has stated that its three most important components are safety, competition and costs. The sanctioning body has created a number of rules, including limits on engines used during a race weekend and tires that teams can purchase for an event to help owners cut costs. For the third consecutive weekend, Cup teams are on track two days instead of three, helping cut a day of travel expenses. Last weekend, owners had to submit votes on potential rule changes intended to help defray costs and balance competition.

Murstein, whose company was involved in the purchase of Richard Petty Motorsports in late 2010, said he would like to see more done toward an overall cap on spending. Such a move would be revolutionary for a sport where owners do not share their financial information and athlete contracts are kept secret.

“I think this sport needs to start coming up with revolutionary concepts, so they have to leave the past in the past and they have start looking to the future,’’ Murstein said.

Because teams are not the same size, there would have different cap amounts. It would be unreasonable to have Richard Petty Motorsports, which is fielding one team this year, have the exact same cap as Joe Gibbs Racing, which fields four cars. Still, proportional caps could be created for each team to help keep costs in line. Murstein suggested independent auditors could monitor the spending.

Should teams spend beyond their limits, Murstein has a plan. A luxury tax.

“Kind of punish the ones that don’t care about spending and that extra money goes into a pool that would help the other owners, and hopefully they would use their money to make their cars more competitive, too,’’ Murstein said.

While Murstein is looking to cut costs, he understands that drivers are underpaid relative to other athletes. As teams struggle to find sponsorship, driver contracts take a hit.

With the new generation of racers, it’s easier for an owner to go with a younger driver, who can cost less, than a veteran. Former champion Matt Kenseth does not have a ride for next year. Stewart-Haas Racing did not pick up the option on former champion Kurt Busch’s contract for next year but tweeted it still expected him to drive for the team next year.

“I do think that even the older drivers, when they come off their contracts, they’re seeing the reality of the sport today and they’re willing to take pay cuts,’’ said Murstein, whose team seeks to renew deals with sponsor Smithfield and driver Aric Almirola. “It’s one sport where there are so few seats. NBA athletes, there’s what 30 teams, about 360 professional athlete. Here you’re talking about 40. It’s probably the hardest sport to be a superstar in.

“I see hockey guys who play a third of the game make $17 million a year. Now you’re talking about (drivers) who are 10th best in the world at what they do getting only salaries of $5 million, so I actually think their salaries are low compared to other sports but the business needs that right now with the sponsorship decline.

“I love the fact of how no other sport has a partner with the athletes where here the athletes get 40 percent of the race winnings. So each race they go into as your partner vs. other sports where they win or lose, it makes no difference at all.

“There are a lot of bright sports in NASCAR, too. I’m just trying, as the new kid on the block, to throw new ideas out there. Some of them will get knocked down right away, which they should because I don’t have the experience that a lot of these other team owners do, but they have to start thinking, in my view, of new and better ways to get the fans interested.’’

Murstein said he understands a cap likely won’t be instituted soon. He admits it could start with more standardized parts for teams.

“I think you probably settle that you’re going to start at parts and pieces but that’s the wrong way to do it, which is probably what will happen,’’ Murstein told NBC Sports. “I think it will happen because it will be the easy one to do. It won’t remove the 800-pound gorilla, which is all the other costs involved and dealing with that. Maybe you tippy-toe into it by starting that way and then eventually you look at the overall spending.

“The sport could even evolve years from now where there’s one manufacturer making all the Toyota cars. That’s the way I actually think it should be. That’s 100 percent the way it should be.’’

For teams that provide chassis to other teams, it seems unlikely they would want to give up a way to make money.

“At some point there’s a tipping point, you have so start looking past … I think you’ve got to point the sport back in the right direction,’’ Murstein said. “It’s a fantastic sport. I go to every other sporting event in the world and none parallel NASCAR, but the direction of it right now needs to be, I think, spun a little bit differently.

“It could happen if the owners get together and I’m sure the ownership of NASCAR would be behind it, so I think it’s more an ownership issue than a NASCAR issue.’’

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. defends crew chief Greg Ives’ performance

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. said he had heard enough “chatter” from fans about crew chief Greg Ives that he needed to tell them to “shut THAT (expletive) down.’’

Earnhardt, in his final full-time season driving in Cup, sent the tweet after exiting Sunday’s Brickyard 400 because of contact on a restart damaged his car. He finished 36th.

Some fans were upset about Ives’ pit strategy before the incident. Earnhardt could have stayed out on a caution at Lap 72 with others. Had he done so, Earnhardt would have restarted fifth. Instead, Ives called him to pit road and Earnhardt restarted 24th.

Ives told NBC Sports that it was an easy call because of what he felt was the difference between old tires and new tires. With what he thought would be a limited cushion of cars between Earnhardt and those with new tires on the restart, Ives said it was best to pit.

On the restart, the field got jumbled and Earnhardt ran into the back of Trevor Bayne’s car, damaging the radiator on Earnhardt’s Chevrolet.

It was another disappointing finish for Earnhardt, who needs a win to make the playoffs. He is 22nd in the points with one top five and four top-10 finishes in 20 races. He’s led 24 laps this season. 

As some fans complained about the strategy, Earnhardt reacted with the tweet.

Earnhardt explained during a break in tire testing Tuesday at Dover International Speedway why he sent the note to his fans.

“I just have heard the chatter over the season,’’ Earnhardt said. “We’ve had a difficult year and there’s just been a little rumbling in the background from the fans. They just love to target the crew chief. Our struggles are no one individual’s responsibility.

“I think that being my crew chief, we have such a very passionate fan base, very large fan base, it’s a challenging position for anybody. I’ve seen that with all the guys that I’ve worked with and they’ve all had to deal with criticism, was it the right call this week, what about the next week? They just get really picked apart.

“This is our last season. We’ve had some pretty difficult results and had opportunity to be frustrated and miserable, but I don’t want this season to be remembered by my crew chief, by myself, by my guys as a miserable time. The fans have an influence on that. They can definitely ease up a little bit on Greg and realize that he’s extremely talented, he’s in that position for a reason.’’

Ives has been praised for how he kept the team together after Earnhardt was out 18 races because of concussion symptoms. Jeff Gordon and Alex Bowman drove the No. 88 Chevrolet in Earnhardt’s absence. Hendrick Motorsports announced last week that Bowman will take over Earnhardt’s ride next season.

Earnhardt, who will join NBC Sports’ broadcast team next year, said he can’t wait to watch Bowman and Ives next year.

“He’s going to have incredible success beyond my driving career as a crew chief at HMS, and I look forward to seeing that happen as soon as next season with Alex,’’ Earnhardt said Tuesday of Ives. “He was able to work with Alex in a matter of a few weeks and have Alex up to speed, confident and fast and almost winning races. (Ives) won a championship with Chase (Elliot) in the Xfinity Series. He won five championships with Jimmie Johnson as the lead engineer.

“Maybe Twitter ain’t the place to be drawing attention to things like that. You just hear enough chatter through the course of a long period of time. It wasn’t something that happened that particular weekend. … It’s not OK to be a fan and dog the crew. You’re a fan of the team. I know it’s important that they embrace the crew chief, the guys on the crew, the mechanics, the tire changers, they’ve got to embrace the whole thing.’’

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