By Jeff O'Brien

First things first: Chip Ganassi is “no doubt about it, 100%” rooting for Kyle Larson to win the NASCAR Cup Series championship in Sunday’s season finale.

DAYTONA BEACH, FLORIDA – FEBRUARY 21: Team owner Chip Ganassi and Ross Chastain, driver of the #42 McDonald’s Chevrolet, talk on the grid prior to the NASCAR Cup Series O’Reilly Auto Parts 253 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2021 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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“Look, I’m fine with Larson and absolutely I am pulling for him,” Ganassi said. “It would prove what everybody has said all along — that he was going to be a champion someday.”

Larson, a nine-race winner this season and the title favorite, of course, will not be racing for Ganassi at Phoenix Raceway. He drives for Hendrick Motorsports now.

What an ironic ending it would be if Larson goes and gets that big trophy on Ganassi’s final day in NASCAR. Ganassi brought Larson into the series from sprint cars and then developed him over nearly eight seasons, taking him right to the edge of superstardom.

The future of Ganassi’s NASCAR operation depended on Larson, but Ganassi fired him last year over Larson’s use of a racial slur. There wasn’t really any other decision to make. Ganassi could keep Larson or he could keep the sponsors that keep the lights on at the shop. Larson got a pink slip.

A year and a half later, Ganassi will leave Phoenix with NASCAR in the rearview mirror. He sold his NASCAR operation to Trackhouse Racing. All of it belongs to Justin Marks and Pitbull as soon as the race is over.

CHARLOTTE, NC – SEPTEMBER 28: Justin Marks, driver of the #15 GoPro Motorplex/Pickers Vodka Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway on September 28, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ganassi didn’t sell because he lost Larson. It was a free agent year, anyway, and there was no guarantee Larson wouldn’t move to Hendrick Motorsports. But it didn’t help.

The sponsorship market is tight and new businesses are hard to find. Pitbull and Michael Jordan are now NASCAR team owners and Chip Ganassi Racing, in its 20th anniversary year, was no better than the middle class.

Marks couldn’t get the NASCAR charters he needed for his own upstart team, so he bought an entire race team after cold-calling Ganassi. It’s been a fast-moving four months: CGR had a farewell luncheon at the shop Tuesday. Some employees will be hired by Trackhouse; some are out of luck.

That’s business.

“You could be melancholy if you want to be, but I look at it and see a lot of successes over the years,” Ganassi told The Associated Press this week.

“We had wins, we had poles, twice we were one race away from making the championship four. But we also brought in a lot of people, and we brought in a lot of great sponsors over the years,” he said. “You never read about that, we never made the papers for that, but we grew great managers and great engineers and great mechanics.

PHOENIX, AZ – NOVEMBER 09: Team owner Chip Ganassi speaks with the media during a press conference prior to practice for the NASCAR Xfinity Series Whelen Trusted To Perform 200 at ISM Raceway on November 9, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

“And we did it over 20 years, so you know a lot of these people well and you see them grow and their families grow and their kids grow, and I’m very happy with what we did and what my legacy will be in NASCAR.”

The record book shows 24 Cup Series victories and 21 Xfinity Series wins, 53 poles, and two All-Star race victories. Only having 24 wins and no championships suggests a team that couldn’t get over the hump to become one of NASCAR’s powerhouse organizations, but it was not a dry well.

The highlight was 11 years ago when Jamie McMurray returned to Ganassi and won the season-opening Daytona 500. McMurray won the Brickyard 400 that season, too, and coupled with Dario Franchitti’s victory in the Indianapolis 500 and a sports car win at Rolex 24 at Daytona to open the 2011 season, Ganassi became the only team owner to claim all those crown jewels in a 12-month period.

“I think when you stack up wins per dollar, I think we look really good,” Ganassi said.

The 63-year-old Ganassi is not a NASCAR lifer. A former racer who remains true to his Pittsburgh roots, Ganassi’s career was in IndyCar until he bought into Felix Sabates’ existing team ahead of the 2001 season. The new Chip Ganassi Racing program debuted on the day Dale Earnhardt died. Ganassi driver Sterling Marlin was involved in Earnhardt’s fatal crash.

Sterling Marlin runs during qualifying for the NASCAR Nextel Cup Tropicana 400 at Chicagoland Speedway, July 9, 2004. (Photo by A. Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The year went on and Marlin needed only 23 races to appease a boss known for his “I like winners” slogan. A second victory six weeks later set up a possible run for the 2002 championship

Marlin opened Ganassi’s second season with two wins in the first five races. He topped the standings for 25 consecutive weeks, but his title hopes ended when he broke a bone in his neck in a crash at Kansas with seven races remaining.

It was the closest Ganassi came in 20 years to winning a Cup championship.

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Ganassi gambled when he brought Juan Pablo Montoya back from Formula One to race in NASCAR, and again when he signed Dario Franchitti away from Michael Andretti. Not to drive one of Ganassi’s all-star Indy cars, though: Ganassi signed Franchitti to join Montoya in stock cars.

Franchitti’s 2008 rookie season lasted only 10 races before he was injured in a crash at Talladega. Ganassi was already feeling the effects of the upcoming financial crisis late that 2008 spring and sponsorship was tight; Franchitti’s team was closed.

SONOMA, CA – AUGUST 24: Dario Franchitti of Scotland, driver of the #10 Target Chip Ganassi Racing Honda Dallara, celebrates earning pole position for the IndyCar Series GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma at the Sonoma Raceway on August 24, 2013 in Sonoma, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

CGR alone in 20 years lost big-money backers Coors Light, Texaco/Havoline, and Wrigley Co. and then flagship sponsor Target ended its 27-year partnership with Ganassi.

“We had a couple of major speedbumps along the way that didn’t help our business and the model we had worked for a long time,” Ganassi said. “You know, my business relies solely on sponsorship.”

Ganassi doesn’t own car dealerships, doesn’t run a global transportation business, doesn’t even make engines to sell to other race teams. The Ganassi engines in NASCAR come from Hendrick.

So if he doesn’t have a sponsor, Ganassi has to pay out of pocket. And his income derived from racing. It’s one long cycle like that in motorsports, a daily hustle of trying to find some more funding.

DC Solar made a big showing at Phoenix in 2018 when it introduced itself as a major Ganassi sponsor for the next season. Less than two months later, founder Jeff Carpoff was raided by the FBI and DC Solar was accused of being a $1 billion Ponzi scheme.

Ganassi says the DC Solar con nearly killed his organization. He called the Xfinity Series team he shuttered “a champion team” and he laid off around 30 employees.

INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MAY 27: Team owner Chip Ganassi looks on as drivers perpare on Carb Day ahead of the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 at Indianapolis Motorspeedway on May 27, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Ganassi told AP he has received notice he is being sued by a trustee attempting to collect Carpoff’s debts. It infuriated him.

“I’m owed money, and I’m getting sued?” said Ganassi. “The guy almost put me out of business. I’m the one who had to lay off all these people. I’m the guy who had to eat the losses and make up that $8 million.”

There is no single reason Ganassi is leaving NASCAR and he is certainly not leaving racing. Alex Palou’s championship in September in his first year of IndyCar was Ganassi’s 14th in American open-wheel racing. Six of the sport’s legends have won titles for Ganassi.

Alex Zanardi, Montoya, Franchitti, and Scott Dixon are all Ganassi champions, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Jimmy Vasser title that launched a Ganassi dynasty. Ganassi will have four IndyCar teams next season, and he told AP he will run a fifth in the Indianapolis 500 for Jimmie Johnson.

Ganassi also returned to sports car competition this year and next season will field two full-time entries as IMSA prepares to return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. And he has a team in the global Extreme E Series and was with that team two weeks ago in Italy.

Still, Ganassi hedged this week on whether he is done with NASCAR forever.

“I left IMSA and now I’m back in IMSA,” Ganassi said. “Who knows?”

It would take a significant financial guarantee. The sleepless nights, the debt, losing Larson, the DC financial mess — it just got tiring.

“I hate to see Chip leaving NASCAR,” fellow team owner Rick Hendrick said. “He’s one of the very best. He builds an unbelievable team. We’ll miss him, but I’ll be watching him in the Indy cars and we’re going to watch him win. He’s a good friend and I admire his racer mentality.”

But for now, the NASCAR chapter has ended for Ganassi.

“This is racing, and you have those big ups and those big downs, and we had big downs. But you know what? The big ups we had outweighed the downs,” Ganassi said. “When I weighed everything, I just decided that moving forward was not the best decision. But it doesn’t mean I’m not racing and it doesn’t mean I can’t come back to NASCAR.”

 

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