June 23, 2012 in Sports

Ganassi’s NASCAR program improves

Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Jamie McMurray, left, talks with his team after practice for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series auto race.
(Full-size photo)

It’s been a continuous search for consistency at Chip Ganassi Racing, where the NASCAR program has never matched the performance levels of its dominant IndyCar entries.

But there’s no bitterness from Juan Pablo Montoya or Jamie McMurray, who have watched from afar as IndyCar counterparts Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon race for wins and championships every year.

Welcome to the up-and-down battles that Montoya and McMurray have faced the last several years in Ganassi’s NASCAR program. The two head into Sunday’s race at Sonoma, Calif., at just about the halfway mark of another rebuilding year for the organization.

McMurray is 18th in the Sprint Cup Series, Montoya is 19th and combined they have only five top-10 finishes all season. But they say their cars are better, they’ve had increased speed of late and they are pleased with the direction of the race team.

Ganassi and co-owner Felix Sabates may have had the most aggressive offseason in NASCAR as sweeping changes were made to the organization. Competition director Steve Hmiel and longtime team manager Tony Glover were replaced, and Brian Pattie left the organization at the end of the season after being removed as Montoya’s crew chief in late July.

Ganassi brought in Max Jones as general manager, John Probst as technical director and lured Chris Heroy away from Hendrick Motorsports to crew chief Montoya. There has been added personnel, improved engineering and a cohesiveness that was absent last season, when both drivers went winless and failed to contend for spots in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.

It was a dramatic drop-off from 2010, when McMurray won three races – including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 – and the drivers were far more competitive.

McMurray said there have been times this season when either he or Montoya has one of the fastest cars on the track, but the team is still working on getting both cars clicking at the same time and putting together complete races.

Still, both think they’ll be competitive Sunday at the road course in scenic Sonoma.

Sprint Cup

Marcos Ambrose won the top starting spot for Sunday’s race at Sonoma with a fast lap around the 1.99-mile road course on Friday. He knocked off Jimmie Johnson, then waited to see if Jeff Gordon could beat him. Gordon wound up second and Johnson third.

IndyCar

Dario Franchitti won the third of the first three qualifying heat races in the history of the current IndyCar series to take the pole for the Iowa Corn Indy 250 in Newton, Iowa.

Franchitti, the Indianapolis 500 winner, has two victories in four starts on Iowa’s short oval.

Nationwide

After a frightening crash at Talladega, Eric McClure had to sit out six weeks while dealing with the lingering effects of a concussion.

Now he has clearance from NASCAR officials and is back in his No. 14 car, practicing for today’s Nationwide Series race at Road America.

McClure said the concussion he sustained in the May 5 race at Talladega was the third of his career, one of the main reasons his doctors and NASCAR officials made him sit out for an extended period of time.

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