Penske-Ganassi rivalry spills over to NASCAR in California

The IndyCar rivalry between Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi has finally spilled over into the NASCAR garage.

On Saturday, Ganassi driver Kyle Larson topped Team Penske’s Joey Logano in the Xfinity Series race at Auto Club Speedway. A day later, Larson finished off the double by beating Penske’s Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Auto Club 400 in the Monster Energy Cup Series.

The score for the weekend? Ganassi 2, Penske 0. After all, in racing, winning is everything.

The drivers who represent Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing currently occupy four of the top six positions in the Cup standings. Although Penske has earned championships in NASCAR’s top two tours, Ganassi is still searching for his first.

That score? Penske 2, Ganassi 0. After all, in racing, championships are everything.

Certainly, 2017 could be the year Ganassi gets on the championship scoreboard.

“It’s just a culmination of a lot of hard work,” Ganassi said. “Everybody said, What is it this year? Why are your cars good? Why this, why that? I keep saying, in this business, it doesn’t take much. It doesn’t take much to be good. It doesn’t take much to be bad. Just made some small changes over the winter in our organization. We tried to look at places that need improvements and we make improvements.

“I think, obviously, a lot of it’s down to Kyle. I think he’s starting to mature in the series and learning what the cars will accept and what the cars won’t accept in terms of putting a weekend together, putting together practice, putting together qualifying, putting together race practice, a race, pit stop after pit stop after pit stop, keeping your head in the game. I think he’s matured a lot in that manner. I couldn’t be happier for him.”

And as the driver of the No. 42 Target Chevrolet said after winning the race on Sunday, “Lots of fun to be Kyle Larson right now. Our race cars are really fast, Xfinity and Cup. It’s a blast to show up to the race track every week.”

After Keselowski’s misfortunes at the start of race on Sunday — and using the first two stages to battle back into the top 10 — Larson is the only driver to earn points in the first and second stages of each of the first five races. In addition to his first race win on Sunday, Larson also earned his first stage win. He’s accumulated six Playoff Points (second only to Martin Truex Jr.’s 8) and leads the championship standings by 29 points over Chase Elliott. Larson’s average finish of 3.8 in the first five races is beyond impressive.

Ganassi veteran Jamie McMurray finished sixth at ACS, his third top-10 finish of the season. McMurray’s 6.6 average qualifying effort ranks second behind Keselowski’s 4.4. McMurray is slowly recovering from finishing 28th in the Daytona 500. Yet after picking up stage points in six of the 10 segments, he currently sits sixth in the standings.

Championship caliber

Ganassi’s best shot at a NASCAR championship came in 2002 with Sterling Marlin, who won two of the first five races that season and led the standings for 25 of the first 26 races until he wrecked at Richmond. When Marlin crashed at Kansas three races later, he was sidelined for the rest of the season with a broken vertebra. McMurray took over the ride the following week at Talladega, then won in his second-career Cup start at Charlotte.

In 2010, Ganassi Racing scaled down to two teams. Team Penske right-sized to two squads the following year — then won the Cup championship in 2012. Although most NASCAR powerhouses find strength in numbers, downsizing has paid off for both organizations.

“It’s hard sometimes when you have so many people,” Ganassi said. “So many people are involved in these teams. So many people back in Charlotte, back at the home base putting the cars together, building our own chassis. It was a subject of a lot of talk the last few weeks. Finish fab (fabrication), on the shake rig, in the wind tunnel. It takes so many, so many, so many people. So many long, long, hard hours.

“Like I said earlier, it just takes little changes. Little changes, like I said, can take you to the Promised Land. They can take you to the Day of Reckoning, too. Every team owner wants their cars, you know, to be like this on the track, not one in the front, one in the back. That’s really rewarding from a team point of view. It validates the way (general manager) Max (Jones), (crew chiefs) Chad (Johnston) and Matt (McCall) run the teams, and (competition director) Tony (Lunders), the way they run the team. I think that sort of validates their MO, if you will.”