Chip Ganassi

Kyle Larson confident about having sponsorship to replace Target next season

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CHARLOTTE – Monday’s sponsor announcement of First Data was bereft of concrete assurances that Kyle Larson’s No. 42 Chevrolet will have full funding next season.

But the vibe was positive at the NASCAR Hall of Fame event hosted by Chip Ganassi Racing, which will need to fill the void left by the departure of longtime sponsor Target in 2018.

“I’m confident mainly just because Chip and (team president Steve) Lauletta, they don’t seem worried about it,” Larson said. “They’ve got a lot of great partners. I think Chip’s organization is — not that it’s easy to find sponsors — but it’s more intriguing for sponsors because he has so many different race teams in different series, so there’s a lot more opportunities for sponsors to get coverage, so I’m not too worried about it.

“We’ve got a lot more important things to worry about the rest of the year, with a championship being one of them. We’ll worry about that.”

First Data will sponsor Larson in the October playoff races at Talladega Superspeedway and Martinsville Speedway (where the race also will be sponsored by the company, whose technology helps process more than $2.2 trillion annually in transactions for 4,000 financial institutions).

First Data CEO and chairman Frank Bisignano attended the Monday announcement, which could be a good sign for increasing its investment with Larson in 2018.

“Frank wants to grow more next year,” Ganassi said.

Is the team optimistic about filling Larson’s car next season?

“Yeah, we still have work to do, but obviously winning races doesn’t hurt,” Ganassi said. “If you know anybody out there that’s interested and so inclined, give them my number.”

Ganassi already has begun its transition away from Target in the first 24 races this season, a third of which have featured other primary sponsors on Larson’s car (such as Credit One Bank).

Larson said he doesn’t know how many races remain open on the car for next year, joking his teammate “Jamie (McMurray) gets more involved in the business questions than I do. I just worry about racing.” But he is encouraged by the addition of First Data, which he learned his business team uses to sell his T-shirts.

“Obviously with Target leaving, a lot of people are looking at what we’ve got for the future, and I think this is a great step for partnership,” he said.

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.

NASCAR America: Kyle Larson, Chip Ganassi relationship pays dividends

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Chip Ganassi and Kyle Larson have a most unique relationship that transcends most other owner-driver unions.

When Larson won the A-Main last Wednesday at the Knoxville Nationals, it put him in the championship race on Saturday.

But Larson admitted a bit of hesitation when it came time to ask Ganassi for permission to fly from Michigan International Speedway after Saturday’s final practice.

As it turned out, Larson finished a career-best second at Knoxville and followed it up with his third consecutive Cup win at MIS.

But there was a point in Sunday’s race that Ganassi started questioning himself for allowing Larson to go to Iowa.

Photo courtesy Chip Ganassi Racing

“I was questioning myself in the middle of the race,” Ganassi said. “I was getting ready to take a lot of heat in the media for that, if we didn’t have a good day.

“I don’t want to do something that’ll slow him down, and you run the risk of that when you have a talent like that that wants to go drive other kinds of cars and things.

“I’ve never been a team owner that keeps my drivers from driving other types of cars. You want to do the best you can for the guy all the time and do what you can do.”

In a sense, Larson paid Ganassi back for his faith in him and allowing the Knoxville trip by winning Sunday.

“I think our guys saw the opportunity in front of them with how much exposure I could get if I ran the Knoxville Nationals. I think Chip also understood that,” Larson said. “There’s been so much exposure this week behind me, and to run good at both races will hopefully help us in the search for a replacement sponsor at the end of the year.

NASCAR America analyst Jeff Burton concurred with Ganassi’s ultimate decision.

“I think you have to let him race,” Burton said. “I think that when you have a guy like Kyle Larson’s that’s young, wants to go race other cars and has proven he can do both successfully, I think it’s okay.

“But there will come a time that when it comes to winning a championship, Kyle needs to focus on what he needs to focus on. And if Kyle can do both and that makes him better on Sunday, then it’s all good.

“What Chip has to decide is that what he does on Saturday night help him on a Sunday afternoon. If there’s ever a question that it doesn’t help him, then Saturday nights will cease.

“You have to be successful on Sunday afternoons if you want to continue your career. It hasn’t been a problem yet, but if you start to see a decline and performance and those kinds of things, I think they’ll have to have a conversation.”

On another front, Larson and Ganassi are almost like son and father, rather than driver and owner.

That’s why with such a close relationship, Larson would likely never go anywhere else because Ganassi gives him so much latitude.

But admittedly, even with their relationship, Larson was still a bit nervous when it came time to ask Ganassi if he could race Saturday night in the sprint car main event in the Knoxville Nationals, where he eventually finished a career-best second place.

Ganassi’s reaction when Larson won Sunday was one of the best seen in NASCAR in a long time.

Not only did Ganassi almost choke crew chief Chad Johnston in joy, he practically gave Larson a concussion when he hit him in the head, also in joy, on the front stretch.

Watch our crew’s analysis on that, as well, and their thoughts on where Ganassi’s reaction ranks among other celebrations this season.

NASCAR America, live 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Larson win, Ganassi reaction, playoff update

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs live from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Carolyn Manno hosts along with Parker Kligerman and Brian Vickers in our Stamford studio. Also, Jeff Burton joins us from Burton’s Garage.

Among the topics on today’s show:

* Kyle Larson earned his third straight win at Michigan after powering to the lead with an impressive restart in overtime. The victory capped off an exciting week for Larson, who also finished a career-best second in the 57th annual Knoxville Nationals sprint car event.

* The reaction of team owner Chip Ganassi in the pit box was priceless after Kyle Larson’s win. That led us to ask the question: What’s the most memorable reaction following a win in the Monster Energy Series this season? Go to NBCSports.com/NASCARVote to cast your vote.

* Three NASCAR Cup playoff spots remain up for grabs with just three regular season races remaining. Which drivers have the advantage going into the Night Race at Bristol? We’ll examine on today’s show.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Kyle Larson has ‘most perfect restart of my life’ and goes on to win

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Kyle Larson wrapped up one of the greatest weeks of his racing career with his win in Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway.

And supporting Larson all the way was team owner Chip Ganassi.

“He’s just an incredible driver,” Ganassi told NBCSN in victory lane.

Added Larson, “I can’t believe it. I don’t know where that move came. (Ganassi) said three-wide … that was the most perfect restart of my life. I’ve lost a few late restarts, but to get one from the second row makes up for a few of them.”

Larson won the A-Main sprint car race Wednesday at the Knoxville Nationals in Iowa, putting him in Saturday night’s main event, where he finished a close second.

Larson then returned to Michigan late Saturday night, got some sleep and roared back in the closing laps to pass Martin Truex Jr. and hold on for his third straight win at MIS, as well as his third win of the 2017 season.