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EGR looks for big '13 after Rolex win
In 25 years of racing, Felix Sabates says 2012 was his worst season.
The co-owner of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing jokes that “gremlins from Mars” must have invaded both of the team’s NASCAR Sprint Cup cars because no matter how they adjusted the vehicles, the drivers simply weren’t competitive.
Not only did Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya fail to win a race, neither veteran scored a top-five finish either. Together, the EGR teammates led 80 laps between them in 12 races.
But after the smackdown Ganassi Racing delivered in the Rolex 24 at Daytona on Sunday — as Montoya drove the No. 1 BMW to Chip Ganassi's fifth career win in America's biggest sports car event — could this be the catalyst that the stock car division needs to turn their program around?
“I think it's good,” Montoya said after his Rolex 24 victory. “Personally, it's a boost getting the job done. The last few years we finished second, we finished fourth, we finished third, we've been there all the time, and it's been painful. It's like you get so close, and the last season caught pretty hard.
“Testing has gone really, really well over the last couple months with the new car, and it seems like we've got a lot more speed than we had last year. It's encouraging. I'm very conservative to see how good we're going to be, but we're probably 80 percent better prepared than last year, and that is good. Everybody — we had to hire a ton of new people last year and now everybody is working together, everybody understands their job and what needs to be done, so it's been pretty good.”
Despite wholesale changes to the competition side for 2012 — with John Probst coming on board as technical director, veteran Roush Fenway Racing executive Max Jones joining the fold as team manager and Chris Heroy taking over as crew chief for Montoya and the No. 42 team — the company went winless for a second consecutive season.
Chip Ganassi acknowledges that racing “has a way of humbling people.” But for an owner who is used to winning, the turnaround “didn’t happen as fast as we would like.” From past experience, Ganassi recalls how his IndyCar programs grew stronger after struggling in 2004 and 2005. And he’s hoping that his NASCAR operation follows suit.
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Maybe there were just too many new managers with too many new philosophies. Probst had his way of operating at Red Bull Racing, Jones from Ford and Heroy from Hendrick Motorsports. While pooling the ideas from the different teams seemed like a good plan at the time, it only muddied the waters more. The management group needed to build a foundation and give the new relationships time to gel.
“When you bring in so many new people, everyone has good ideas and it takes a while to go through all those ideas,” McMurray said. “A lot of the ideas don’t work, so you have to kind of weed through those. For us, the last 10 races of the year were really good, not because of our results but because we spent those 10 races doing everyone’s ideas and really trying to work through those and seeing what were going to be big needle movers and what wasn’t.
“I thought that was really good for everybody to kind of get their ideas out and not have the guy in the back that was like 'if you’d just do what I said then it would all be OK.' We got most of that stuff out of the way. Then they sat down and built our car for this year and I felt like they took all the good things we learned from last year and, so far, it’s been a lot better this year.”
Throughout last year, EGR made improvements that Probst feels will help the company moving forward. In mid-January the company installed new SIM and database programs. In February, EGR began assembling its own 7-post shaker rig to evaluate the cars before leaving for the track. The system was operational just before the Chase for the Sprint Cup started in August.
When it was clear that the current setups weren’t working for the teams, the organization elected to punt and began working on the Generation 6 cars prior to the Chase. Probst insists that EGR is “not lacking on the engineering side” whatsoever. And he’s extremely comfortable with where the organization is in its progress with the new car.
“The last five races of the year we learned a lot from working together,” Probst said. “We went in two different directions with aero and chassis — a lot of trial and error. We’ll use the positives moving forward and not waste our time on what didn’t produce speed.”
EGR has participated in every possible test of the Gen-6 car. The team switched in the offseason from Earnhardt-Childress to Hendrick engines and showed speed at both Charlotte Motor Speedway and Daytona International Speedway — where Probst admits “neither team saw the checkered flag last year” in the Daytona 500.
“The first five races of the season will set the tone for the entire year,” Probst said. “It’s not impossible to come back from a bad start – the 24 (Jeff Gordon) and 5 (Kasey Kahne) did it last year. But coming off of a bad year, you don’t want to get off to a slow start. We didn’t have a good start to last season. We have to find a way to find the checkered flag in Daytona.”
Sabates is impressed with the support the company has received from Chevrolet and believes the Gen-6 car is “better aerodynamically” than the Car of Tomorrow. He claims the COT “was the worst mistake in the history of NASCAR.” But Sabates is also convinced that it will take guts to drive the new car.
“Everything I’ve heard, you can adjust this car without going to the NASCAR jail for cheating,” Sabates said. “But the driver that can drive a car that isn’t right (handling-wise) will be successful. I really believe it will play right into Juan’s hands because he’s not afraid of anything.”
Montoya agrees with Sabates that he has what it takes but he wants to remain cautiously optimistic regarding this year’s prospects. Yes, he believes that after a challenging year “the benefits are coming and they’re moving in the right direction.” But for Montoya, who is in the final season of his contract, it’s a make or break year.
“I think you always race for your job,” Montoya said. “It's normal.”
The team has displayed speed in the early stages of the Gen-6’s development. But Montoya doesn’t want to predict his team will win races and then win none at all.
“Testing has shown that we’re going in the right direction,” Montoya said. “I just want to be really conscientious about what we say. We’re all real excited. We’re all working really hard. But I really want to be cautious about saying how good we’re going to be. I don’t want to go and say we’re going to win 20 freakin’ races and have a bad year. I’d rather say we’re going to have an OK year and win 20 races.
“All my life I’d rather be conservative about how good I am and go out there (and) kick everyone’s ass. It’s better to show it than to talk about it.”