Analysis: With speed surge, Chip Ganassi Racing has last chance at best impression

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Eight weekends remain in the lifespan of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NASCAR program. Sold to Trackhouse Racing, at least 55 employees have been earmarked for layoffs, making the organization’s run through the playoffs a bitter pill to swallow.

But some unexpected sweetener — a surge in raw speed for both the cars of Kurt Busch and Ross Chastain — has made the bitterness more palatable.

Busch, through two playoff races with varying results, has displayed top-four speed, while Chastain has tallied a pair of top-seven finishes. In a 2021 season that contains unique restrictions on parts development, wind tunnel testing and simulation, CGR’s improvement is a rarity, standing out against those standing pat:

The program’s collective low point, in regards to its rolling median lap rank, was after the first Darlington race on May 9, also a time when neither Busch (ranked 20th) nor Chastain (ranked 22nd) were in serious playoff contention based on points. This was a rough patch that hit rock bottom at the end of the month when both Ganassi cars suffered oil pump failures in the Coca-Cola 600.

Given CGR’s apparent lack of speed on tracks with playoff representation, it seemed if one of them did manage to qualify for the playoffs, it’d lead to an early exit. There was a bit of speed, predominately on the 550-horsepower tracks. Busch turned the fastest median lap at Homestead and the second fastest in the spring race at Atlanta. His win — which locked him into a playoff spot — took place in the second Atlanta visit, in which his car registered as the fastest of the race.

But both Ganassi teams were comparatively poor on the shorter 750-horsepower ovals. Before the start of the playoffs, Busch ranked 17th in average median lap time, while Chastain ranked 18th. A first round consisting of Darlington, Richmond and Bristol shouldn’t have favored either of them, but yearlong strides included at least two of those venues, where both drivers showcased competitive and perhaps winning speed but failed to secure results in line with their cars’ capabilities.

“I can go fast, I just can’t quite race with them,” Chastain told NBC Sports in his post-race interview after a third-place Darlington finish. “It starts with my restarts. I’ve got some work to do there, so I gave up the outside to be safe and then Kyle (Larson) rolls by me.”

Chastain correctly pointed out his most overwhelming foible — his overall position retention rate on restarts is 44%, a frequency ranked 23rd among full-time Cup drivers — and even alluded to the idea of his team needing “a better driver,” but it was a self-evaluation that may have been too harsh, even in the moment.

Track position has provided so much of a challenge the last few weeks that Larson, one of the sport’s most precise passers, threw out a desperation single-corner bomb on the final lap at Darlington, a knowingly flimsy attempt that he smirked about afterwards. Richmond, too, forced good teams into areas of strategic discomfort, with some long-pitting on a track with high tire wear in hopes they’d have rubber left to burn in the closing laps. There, Chastain finished 10th in a car that turned the seventh-fastest median lap.

Chastain isn’t in the playoffs, but has become a deserving storyline. He’s a threat to play spoiler, stealing wins that’d keep title-eligible teams from automatic advancement.

Busch, meanwhile, is not only in the playoffs, but also enters this weekend’s elimination race at Bristol with a spring in his step. He doesn’t lack for firepower — his average median lap rank through the playoffs’ two races is first, while his average best lap rank is tied for fourth. He’s hovering near the cutline after a blown tire ended his race prematurely last Saturday, a cruel conclusion to a contest in which he never dipped below third in the running order.

And whereas the six-time Bristol winner might not have had winning speed on 750-horsepower tracks earlier this year, he appears well suited right now to right the wrongs of Richmond. Last season, Bristol’s two races saw 22 clean restarts, falling into the wheelhouse of one of the greatest short-run drivers in the double-file restarting era.

A win is more realistic than one might imagine, but at the very least, a good outing neatly fits within what Busch has done historically well and what CGR is getting right at the current moment. It’s a tide of positivity Busch himself helped inspire.

The thing of the team being sold and different members being caught off guard, all of that kind of calmed down when we won Atlanta,” Busch told NBC Sports. “That was the perfect antidote. When I went into the race shop the next Tuesday, Chip Ganassi flew in from Pittsburgh and we gave the best motivational speech that we could from the ownership side and then from the driver side.

“My focus was to tell everybody we’ve got these 10 weeks in the playoffs that I need everybody to focus on the hood ornament of their car — just stay focused on what’s right in front of you and then things will unfold for the future.”

Since Chip Ganassi became the company’s majority owner in 2001, it has won 20 times in over 20 years of Cup competition. The distribution of those wins is top-heavy — 11 of them took place in 2002, 2010 and 2017. In each ensuing season — 2003, 2011 and 2018 — the company went winless. Dating back to the inception of the playoff format in 2014, six different organizations have qualified for the Championship 4; CGR isn’t one of them. Its most indelible memory might be Juan Pablo Montoya’s crash into a jet dryer during the 2012 Daytona 500.

But there’s one more chance for leaving a best impression, and it appears both of Ganassi’s teams are crescendoing towards some grand culmination, a final flurry of successes. Perhaps that’s the silver lining in not having to fret about a Next Gen car or program-building beyond what’s important in this very moment.

There is no tomorrow for those employed by Ganassi, only the challenge of here and now. For that, for the first time all season, both teams appear up to the task.