Here’s a good problem to have: With three races remaining in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES’ 2021 season, Chip Ganassi Racing has three viable championship contenders.
Now, how to boost the individual hopes of Alex Palou, Scott Dixon and Marcus Ericsson while managing the expectations of the organization? Just remember that Chip Ganassi “likes winners.”
“We have one simple rule,” said Mike Hull, the team’s managing director. “There are no team orders.
“With that being said, we help each other on the racetrack every chance we get – with (car) setups, racecraft, reading the racetrack and so on to help each other be as far up the grid as we can be because if all three are (near the front), that gathers points not only for themselves but it takes points away from other drivers. That’s a requisite for being successful when you’re in a points race.
“Then comes our next rule: Don’t hit your teammate.”
Palou enters the final three races 10 points behind series leader Pato O’Ward. Dixon is 43 points out of the lead with Ericsson 60 points from being the leader. The other driver still in contention is Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden, who is 22 points out of the lead in third place.
For all of the success of CGR has had since forming in 1990, it hasn’t had many teammates battling down to the wire. Jimmy Vasser and Alex Zanardi were in the thick of the title fights in 1996 and ’97, with each capturing a championship. In 2006, Dan Wheldon and Dixon went to the season’s final race at Chicagoland Speedway with a chance to win the title, but they had two Team Penske drivers – Sam Hornish Jr. and Helio Castroneves – to contend with. Wheldon won the race, tying Hornish for the highest number of season points, but Hornish won the championship on a tiebreaker.
The most notable Ganassi vs. Ganassi battle occurred in 2009 when Dixon and Franchitti went to the last race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in what amounted to a winner-take-all showdown that included Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe. CGR’s advantage was having two cars in contention, allowing them to roll with different fuel strategies for the final stint. Franchitti’s strategy prevailed as Dixon and Briscoe were forced to pit in the final eight laps.
Dixon, who is currently fourth in the standings, has finished at least that high 15 times – winning six championships – so he knows the stressful road that begins with the Grand Prix of Portland at Portland International Raceway on Sept. 12. But surprisingly, this is the first time since 2011 that a teammate is with him in a championship fight this late in the season.
So, forgive Dixon if he needs a refresher on a group CGR final dash.
“It’s hard to comment because I feel like it was a long time ago,” he said. “But even since then, I don’t think (the approach) has really changed. It still comes down to the last few weeks and Chip saying, ‘Look after your teammates.’ That’s the only thing in one of these.”
Hull is a student of the game of golf, and he uses the tale of Greg Norman’s collapse in the 1996 edition of The Masters as a reminder of how to approach a championship pursuit.
Norman, who led the first three days at Augusta, went to the final round with a seemingly insurmountable six-shot lead over Nick Faldo.
“In Norman’s mind, he had been aggressive for three straight days so on the final day he decided he just needed to shoot 70 to win the tournament,” Hull said. “Faldo won by (five) shots because Norman had two double-bogeys and five bogeys in the final 18 holes. He shot himself out of the tournament by not playing the way he’d played the first three days. He had totally changed his mindset.
“So, I think in order to win championships, when it comes down to what you do with your teammates or the other people on the racetrack, you treat them with respect but you race them to the end by racing the same way you’ve gotten there. I think that’s what you have to do.”
Just do what you do, Dixon said.
“At no point have we strategized to move people around (for position) or to do certain things on the racetrack,” he said. “I think even in stints last year, when (I) had a really good run on Felix (Rosenqvist) the team was like, ‘Hey, let Dixon go, he’s quicker.’ But then later on in the race when Felix was faster, (I) made it easier for him to go past.
“For Chip, the more you’ve got fighting for the championship the better. I think it comes down to this: Help your teammates and don’t take them out.”
The final three races shape up this way: Sept. 12 with the Grand Prix of Portland, Sept. 19 with the Firestone Grand Prix of Monterey at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, and Sept. 26 with the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.