Chip Ganassi Racing executive batted around baseball opportunities

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CONCORD, N.C. – When he left his general manager position at Hendrick Motorsports a year ago, Doug Duchardt was interested in staying in the front office.

But not necessarily in NASCAR.

The longtime St. Louis Cardinals fan “looked pretty hard at Major League Baseball” for a few months before starting his new job as the chief operating officer at Chip Ganassi Racing in January.

“I had discussions with a few clubs and got close with a couple, but it just didn’t come through,” Duchardt told NBC Sports.com in a recent interview at Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR headquarters north of Charlotte, North Carolina.

It would have been quite a reset after a three-decade career of working in the automobile industry (primarily in racing, starting at General Motors before moving to Hendrick in 2005).

“In the front office but a much lower level,” Duchardt said. “I understood I wasn’t going to come in as the general manager of a baseball team. I’m not smart enough for that. It was something new to challenge myself. Go find something you like and learn about it.

“I don’t regret pursuing that at all. I met some really interesting people and had a great time learning more about a sport I love. I think anytime you get to interact with leaders of other sports, you learn from them, even though you may not think it’s applicable to a race car or race team. Inevitably, leadership and how you approach things and your culture, company, all those things apply. Whether it’s baseball, football, basketball, racing. Any company you have, you have to build a culture, and have people buy into that and move forward.”

During the job search, several lessons came from one Major League Baseball GM whose team has produced many executives who became GMs at other teams.

“I don’t know if I want to name the name, but it’s someone who has been in baseball a long time,” Duchardt said. “And what became evident in my discussions with this person is their openness to someone who didn’t grow up in the game and was more interested in building a culture with the right people other than necessarily someone who grew up in the background. It was just a different philosophy.”

And an approach that might have landed him a baseball gig.

“That’s what I was hoping,” Duchardt said. “But I completely get it. If you’re at a club and grooming people to come up through their system, and you’ve got a plan and how that’s going to proceed, and here comes a guy who is working on race cars, how is this going to work?

“I was hoping to bring a unique perspective. As technology increases in baseball, coming from a sport that is extremely dependent on technology, and I had managed technology for many years, specifically at Hendrick, that I could come and help that.

And did he talk job opportunities with his favorite team?

“Briefly,” Duchardt said of the Cardinals. “I’ve got a ton of respect for that club and how it’s managed. They have plans and people in place.

“I really didn’t look at it like that. I was just wanting to find something that was going to get me out of my comfort zone.”

His return to that comfort zone has gone well at Ganassi, which has the series’ top-ranked Chevrolet in Kyle Larson’s No. 42 (ninth in the points standings) and just earned its second top 10 with Jamie McMurray’s No. 1 (sixth in the Coca-Cola 600).

Here are highlights of the interview with Duchardt, who reflected on his time at Hendrick (which announced his departure on June 6, 2017), managing a team across multiple racing series and on the challenges of the new Camaro:

Q: What was the impetus for your first break from racing in more than 30 years?

A: “When I decided to leave Hendrick, it was for professional and personal reasons. I was just ready to look to do something different. So, I took the time to do that. I just unplugged. I went and played fantasy baseball at Cooperstown. I helped my daughter get acclimated in her new job in New York. I was looking at opportunities outside of NASCAR. That’s really where I thought I was going to land.

“Chip called about coming here. Chip and I had known each other a long time from when I was the NASCAR program manager at Chevrolet, and he was coming into NASCAR. Of course at Hendrick, we were supplying engines, and I got to know him through that relationship. I felt we always had a good rapport. He talked to me about coming here, and it really appealed to me because he competes in three racing programs. It allowed me to get back into racing that I really enjoyed when I was at General Motors and had the director of racing jobs. The fact it was a different role than just competition, so managing across the company. I felt like it was going to be something new and a challenge.”

Q: How is the new job a different challenge from the competition-focused general manager role at Hendrick?

A: “The title is COO, so it’s competition and all business operations. So basically run the company. That’s the revenue side, supporting sponsors, public relations and all the competition. There are two facilities, one in Concord (NASCAR) and the Indianapolis facility with the two IndyCar teams and the two sports car teams.

Q: Did you have an MBA to prepare for the business side?

A: “I went to Sloan School of Business at MIT and did some executive education courses. But I never got a formal degree. I got a certificate. Specifically in different areas I felt like I needed to learn if I wanted to grow from competition to a bigger role. So that’s been good. It’s been a challenge. It’s new. It’s different. I’m not day to day worried about the new Optical Scanning Station. Someone else is worrying about that.”

Q: You left Hendrick near the midpoint of what was a tough season for that team. Were those results a factor in your departure?

Doug Duchardt was general manager at Hendrick Motorsports when he left in June 2017 (photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images).

A: “When I was looking at (the move), what’s the right timing for that? For me to wait through the whole year would not be fair to the company because the time for the general manager or management role at a race team to be locked in is when the season ends. You have to plan for next year. To me, the minimal disruption to them was for me to leave, and I just felt that was the right time. It gave them time to reorganize, put people in place and be ready to assess and adjust whatever they had to do in the offseason next year.

“I have nothing bad to say about (team owner) Rick (Hendrick) or (team president) Marshall Carlson. They were nothing but supportive of me when I made my decision. Rick didn’t want me to go. I’m still great friends with him. I’m really proud of the work I did there with them. It’s a hugely talented group. I was blessed to be there for the 12 years I was.”

Q: Does the pride stem from being there for seven championships with Jimmie Johnson?

A: “Here’s the thing about that. When you’re in a senior management role, you’re trying to build an environment for people to succeed. And so, when you have really talented people throughout the organization, including a driver and crew chief combination that locked in, it’s hard to say what you did or didn’t do to help that. I’m smart enough to know and humble enough to know that hopefully I helped. I tried to help. Or I was just right place, right time. Whatever it is, I’m blessed and thankful I was there when it happened. It’s made for great memories.”

Q: Are you pleased by Ganassi’s start to 2018?

A: “When I started here, the NASCAR program obviously was going in the right direction and has been successful in the past two years and continues to perform well. We’ve been close to some wins. The group here has done a really good job of building a tight-knit two-car team that is focused and working well together. You just try to focus on the fundamentals and keep learning and getting better, and the rest will take care of itself. From my standpoint, I haven’t said or done much other than reinforce the importance of communication and working together.

Kyle Larson is ahead of Ryan Blaney during Sunday’s  Coca-Cola 600. Larson finished seventh, giving Ganassi Racing two top 10s in the race (photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images).

“From the IndyCar and sports car side, the first part has been learning those series again. Before the season, I was trying to get to Indianapolis at least once every other week. Get caught up with (IndyCar president of competition) Jay Frye. So it’s been fun catching up with friends that you’ve had from before, and they’re in new roles. And then learning new racing series. It’s been 15 years since I was exposed to IndyCar and sports car, so it as fun getting back in that.

“I always said if I went back to being director of a (manufacturer) racing program, I could do my job so much differently. Because once you’ve understood what is happening day to day (at a team) — what is going on to get to the track and operate, execute and succeed – it really helps.”

Q: What decision-making are you involved in with IndyCar and sports car?

A: “It’s more of long-term planning and structurally looking at things. That’s all this sport is. It’s all continuous improvement. Always how to get a little bit better. Whether week to week or long term. Chip’s organization started with IndyCar. It’s got a lot of history, a lot of longtime employees. They’ve been around the sport a long time. They have a lot of experience to lean on and know the paddock well there. You lean on them and then start talking about what their needs are and what they need next, and then you start working on that.”

Q: On the NASCAR side, are there advantages to having two cars vs. four?

A: “There are advantages and disadvantages. The four-car team lent itself to having more resources. It’s more difficult to manage and align because there are four opinions vs. two. There’s always pros and cons to everything.”

Q: Why have the Chevy teams seem to have had some growing pains with the debut of the Camaro this season?

A: “There are two variables: The new car and the new inspection system. That’s the two variables that Chevy are dealing with, and Ford and Toyota teams just dealt with the new inspection system. And so we’re working hard to continue to evolve and develop the car. Kyle’s been competitive at intermediate tracks. Certainly we’re not where we want to be yet, but we’re working hard to get there, so NASCAR has a process to put those cars through and approve, and we went through it. I feel like the fundamentals are there to make that car successful, and we’ve just got to keep working on it to get there. We’re just a third of the way through the season, so things can change a lot by the time we get to the playoffs.

Q: The Camaro was designed and developed ahead of the Optical Scanning Station this year. Did that have an impact?

A: “We knew that was coming, and then what we didn’t know was the tolerances (NASCAR officials) were going to hold us to. I wasn’t (at Hendrick) in the middle of it anymore in the tail end of getting that car approved. My recollection was they were bringing (the OSS) to playoff races, and you could voluntarily go through to see how it worked, and I don’t know how many people took that option to understand that. I just wasn’t there for that.

“But NASCAR didn’t say, ‘Hey, we’re going to have an OSS and this is the tolerance.’ That’s fine. It’s not like the Chevrolet group knew what that was going to be, and Toyota and Ford didn’t, either. It’s just change. I try to put it on the engine side. I’ve seen it before like back in 1996, we had the 18-degree Chevrolet small block engine and the new SB2 small block. What happened was you’d developed the old 18-degree engine so long, that when you build your first SB2, it was just as good as the 18-degree. The 1998 Daytona 500 was the first SB2 win with Dale Earnhardt, but in qualifying, Gibbs had an 18-degree engine because it ran better. They qualified with the 18 degree and raced with the SB2. When you put that much time and development into something, sometimes it’s hard to leapfrog it. Especially in the tight tolerances like NASCAR has. I think that’s just what we’re in the middle of (with the Camaro).”

Kyle Busch dominates to Truck win at Las Vegas

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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Kyle Busch extended his NASCAR Truck Series victory record to 57 in his hometown Friday night, leading 108 of 134 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion swept both stages and finished 5.958 seconds ahead of Johnny Sauter. Busch has won seven straight races in the series, including all five he entered last season.

Austin Hill was third, followed by defending series champion Matt Crafton and Ben Rhodes. Grrant Enfinger, who opened the season with an overtime victory at Daytona, did not finish after an accident with 43 laps to go.

Christian Eckes was right behind Busch in the opening two stages, but he finished 23rd after an early final-stage wreck.

Results

Driver standings

Jimmie Johnson tops final Cup practice at Las Vegas

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Jimmie Johnson was the fastest driver in Friday’s second and final NASCAR Cup practice of the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The seven-time Cup champion hasn’t won a race since 2017, but showed plenty of speed, pacing the 38 cars that took to the 1.5-mile track, clocking a best speed of 179.432 mph.

Johnson and his Chevrolet were followed by five Fords.

Clint Bowyer, who was second-fastest in the first practice earlier in the day, was once again second-fast in the final session at 179.271 mph.

Aric Almirola, who was fastest in the first practice, was third-fastest in the final session at 179.170 mph.

Rounding out the top-5 were Kevin Harvick (179.015 mph) and Matt DiBenedetto (178.814 mph).

Sixth through 10th were Ross Chastain (178.660 mph), who will be filling in for the injured Ryan Newman in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, followed by Kyle Larson (178.424), Ryan Blaney (178.359), John Hunter Nemechek (178.259) and Alex Bowman (178.089).

Final Cup practice results

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Next goals for Daytona winner Denny Hamlin: double-digit wins, Cup crown

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There was a time when Denny Hamlin’s best memories of the Daytona 500 were to just go home relatively unscathed.

Consider this: In Hamlin’s first six appearances in the Great American Race, his highest finish was 17th.

But after a breakthrough 4th-place finish in 2012, he has become the best overall performer in the 500 among active drivers.

“I don’t know what it is, but I think I started studying more about superspeedway racing around that time because I had been so unsuccessful for a very long time,” Hamlin said Friday during a media session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“We went a long time and I’ve won a lot of the Clashes and Duel races, but not many like Talladega – I think I have one win there – but it just seems like it’s that seven or eight years ago that the car came around and whatever techniques I use or I’ve adapted to this car have seemed to work.”

In the last seven editions of the 500, Hamlin has finished 2nd (2014), 4th (2015), 1st (2016), 17th (2017), 3rd (2018), 1st (2019) and 1st again this past Monday.

Do the math and that’s three wins – making him only the sixth driver in NASCAR history to win the 500 three or more times – and seven overall top-5 finishes in the last nine season openers.

Hamlin knew that getting his second 500 win in a row – both outcomes being the closest finishes in the race’s 62-year history – and third in the last five years was basically going to come down to a battle between him, Ryan Newman and Ryan Blaney.

With emphasis on Newman, that is, before he was involved in that horrific last lap crash on the front stretch heading toward the checkered flag.

“I pulled the block on (Newman) coming to the white (flag) and I stayed in front and I knew he was going to back up to (Blaney),” Hamlin said. “I was trying to back up myself, but once (Newman) was attached (to Blaney), I knew they were going to come with a run I could not stop.

“I just held my line because if I started going sideways, the next thing you know (Newman) starts moving sideways and (Blaney) is already hooked to him, so he’s probably going to push him sideways into me.

“I just wanted to hold a straight line to let them know hey, pass this way, and when I did I was able to back to (Blaney) and was able to unattach him from (Newman). When I slowed his momentum, that allowed me to really tuck in right behind him. I don’t know if he checked up to keep us attached but once we got attached, I knew we were going to have a run back on (Newman).

“I knew he was going to get there, I didn’t know what was going to happen when he did get there, but certainly it worked out in my favor. I thought I was going to get back around (Blaney) at the (finish) line if there was no crash, but I wasn’t sure I was going to get all the way back to (Newman). I knew those two were going to jostle and I was just hoping to be in the right place when it happened and I was.”

Not having any 500 wins of his own, Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch is envious of Hamlin’s three triumphs.

“Denny has really gotten way better ever since this car,” Busch said of Hamlin and how he’s adapted to the Gen 6 car in recent years. “He was always an aggressive plate racer, one that would make moves that you’re kind of, ‘Man, if he would just stay in line, I think this would turn out better.’

“He still does that today, but he’s making it work for himself, that not staying in line is better for Denny. I think since this car came though, he’s been a real good plate racer.

“He’s been fantastic at the game, he’s understood it, he’s made moves that I sometimes wouldn’t make that have worked, he’s able to pass a guy to get in line. … He’s very knowledgeable and skillful In making his moves and passes.”

Going forward from Daytona, Hamlin said his next goal is double-digit wins this season. If so, he’d become the first driver to earn 10 or more wins in a season since Jimmie Johnson did so in 2007 when the seven-time champ won 10 races.

“I’d be satisfied with that and then beyond that would be nice,” Hamlin said. “I think that the championship is an easy goal that anyone just throws out – win a championship, but that comes down to one race.

“If you can win a significant amount of races, it shows a bigger picture of your full year. If you make it to the Final Four, that’s a bigger picture of your entire year (Hamlin has reached the final four just twice since the format was introduced in 2014 — third that year and fourth last season). I think the championship – a successful year is making the Final Four. Anything after that is just whatever it is.

“Certainly we set lofty goals. I think everyone sets huge and lofty goals, but certainly we’re going to push ourselves to better what we did last year and it starts with Daytona and we’re able to repeat there so then let’s get a win now before we get to Texas to keep ourselves on pace or better from last year.”

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Johnny Sauter on pole for tonight’s Truck race in Las Vegas

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Johnny Sauter will start from the pole in tonight’s Strat 200 Gander RV and Outdoors Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Sauter earned the eighth career pole of his Truck Series career – and first since 2018 – by topping the other 34 drivers that made qualifying attempts with a speed of 177.836 mph.

Sheldon Creed (177.643 mph) will start alongside Sauter on the front row for tonight’s race.

The rest of the top 10 qualifiers were Kyle Busch (177.282 mph), making his first Truck Series start of the season, followed by Christian Eckes (177.189 mph), Ty Majeski (177.189), Austin Hill (176.788 mph), Tyler Ankrum (176.275), Raphael Lessard (176.056), Grant Enfinger (176.010) and Brett Moffitt (175.890).

Tonight’s race starts shortly after 9 p.m. ET (FS1, Performance Racing Network and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Trucks qualifying results

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