Back Home Again with Chip Ganassi: One-Two Punch with McMurray and Montoya

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 21, 2010

FONTANA, CA - FEBRUARY 19:  Juan Pablo Montoya, driver of the #42 Target Chevrolet, and Jamie McMurray, driver of the #1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Chevrolet, share a conversation during qualifying for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 500 at Auto Club Speedway on February 19, 2010 in Fontana, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Much like parents, who welcome their children back home with open arms when they return to the nest, Chip Ganassi and team partner Felix Sabates had to be elated when old driver Jamie McMurray decided to come back to their organization.

Although there weren't tears, hugs, and a few "I miss you" moments in their reunion, the two parties realized what their capabilities were once their plans were set in stone. 

And has it ever been set in stone, quite literally when McMurray's fingerprints, shoe marks and signature were immortalized for the Daytona 500 Experience's "Walk of Fame," all in commemoration of the No. 1 team's triumph in "The Great American Race" this past Sunday.

That win was significant, considering that McMurray wasn't sure of his 2010 plans back in August. Also, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing lacked a driver for sponsor Bass Pro Shops, with long time lead-footer Martin Truex Jr. bolting to Michael Waltrip Racing.

Putting two and two together, the combination made sense. However, Bass Pro Shops wasn't too keen about McMurray blending in as the "appropriate" spokesperson for their stores, which cater to hunters and the great outdoors.

Risks be damned, the payoff has started off right off the get-go for both entities.

His crew chief may be different, the car number's not the same, and the cars are now under the Chevrolet banner.

Also, their cars have a tremendous powerplant with cooperation from Richard Childress's team, greatly improving the performances of this once fledgling organization.

Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing still has some work to do in trying to dethrone the Hendrick Motorsports dominance that's been established since the "Jimmie Johnson Era" in the Sprint Cup Series.

However, what it lacks in numbers, it makes up for with dedication, perseverance and aggression.

Juan Pablo Montoya earned one of the dubious, yet honorable titles in all of sports as "most improved" racer of 2009, emerging as a dependable finisher to a consistent front-runner in NASCAR.

Consistency and his hard-charging driving style propelled his No. 42 Target Chevy Impala efforts with an eighth-place finish in the championship chase.

This team has improved in about every aspect of its game, with two steely-eyed racers who will do whatever it takes to win. It has the cars to help its racers compete with the leaders on a weekly basis and a pair of crew chiefs who keep their team and driver at peak performance mode.

Kevin "Bono" Manion has been a part of the No. 1 team virtually since its inception in the Cup ranks in 2006. He's a present-day equivalent to Robin Pemberton, keeping his crew and driver fired up as well as constantly reminding his racer to stay calm during key moments of a race.

His leadership ethics are a perfect suit to McMurray, who needs that "football coach" presence atop the pit box.

The same can be said with Brian Pattie, who spearheads the efforts of Montoya's No. 42 group. Unlike past crew chiefs, he has not been afraid to assert his place as the leader of the team, credited as the man behind Montoya's new outlook with NASCAR.

Prior to his arrival with the Target team, JPM was like Cole Trickle, using his car all up before it was time to truly go for wins or the best position by race's end. How many times did we see a junked-up, torn car from the No. 42 camp prior to 2009?

Pattie urged his driver to save his equipment as well as going for the best position possible, not for wins if it is not in sight for the team. As a result, we saw a different Juan Pablo Montoya, who got his lion's share of top-fives and top-10's. 

Probably the only occasion when Montoya blew up at his team and at NASCAR officials was at last year's Brickyard 400, where a pit-road speeding violation cost the Colombian his elusive second career victory. Not surprisingly, the 2007 Rookie of the Year felt that the officials "stole" the race away from him.

Otherwise, we saw a rejuvenated and inspired effort from Chip Ganassi's stock car investment. His group had suffered some setback following the failed experiments in Dario Franchitti, David Stremme, and Reed Sorenson.

While each were capable racers, the combination between driver and team was incompatible for success under the Ganassi and Sabates formula.

Scrappy racers like McMurray and Montoya know their team's system very well, having driven for the organization at various points in their careers.

JPM once drove their Champ Car for two seasons in 1999 and 2000, winning the title in his rookie campaign and placing ninth in his prelude season to a tumultuous F1 career.

McMurray was a Ganassi racer for a trio of seasons, which was mired with mixed results and a single victory which hyped the pride of Joplin, Mo., as an instant motorsports star. Grabbing that second win turned out to be quite the crusade for the '03 Rookie winner, who wouldn't reach Victory Lane again until 2007.

Both racers' careers were in doubt as far as finding a legit, winning team, seemingly unable to find the combination that paved to super speedway-sized success. Their prayers and wishes were answered by re-joining their "families," and 2010 is shaping up to be their best season yet.

Following last Sunday's Daytona 500 victory, fans wondered if it was sheer dumb luck or the beginning of consistent runs and finishes for McMurray. Friday's qualifying session answered those uncertainties with a loud affirmation.

EGR's racers own the front row for Sunday's Auto Club 500 at Fontana, Calif., with McMurray and Montoya leading the 43-car field for a pivotal race which often receives the label as the "first true test" of the Cup season.

Restrictor plates are no longer the name of the game, with horsepower, handling, and fuel mileage dictating who wins and loses this event.

Who knows?

It might be yet another Hendrick Motorsports' display of dominance, as they have been the top team since 2006.

Perhaps Roush-Fenway Racing will edge out the Bowtie's leading contingency, with Greg Biffle or Carl Edwards racing their Fusions into Victory Lane. Auto Club Speedway's sister track in Brooklyn, Mich., is often labeled as "The House of Roush."

However, expect a pair of Chevrolet Impala machines to announce their presence, with a couple of "good ol' boys" who don't mean any harm. Instead, they just want to cure their fever...with another trip to the winner's circle.

That is where EGR's cars, drivers, and crew truly belong and feel most at home.