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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

25%: Slow Start For Ganassi a Letdown After 2009

(Note: 25% is a series on how some of the top teams in the IZOD IndyCar Series have done through the first quarter of the season, heading into the second quarter of oval races.)

Somewhere, Chip Ganassi is disappointed in his race teams.

After winning the Daytona 500, his NASCAR teams have underperformed this season, both sitting outside the top 20 in points. His Grand-Am team may be leading the points, but it has not yet faced the level of strong competition normally present in the series. And worst of all, his bread and butter, his IZOD IndyCar Series teams, sit tied for fifth in points, far off the pace of rival Roger Penske's team.

Granted, with the level of competition currently present in IndyCar, the top five is something to be proud of. But for the team with the past two series championships, and the drivers with the past three, it's dramatically underwhelming. While Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti actually got off to a slower start last year, each failing to finish one of the first four races before unleashing torrid runs for the title, they had a win apiece, with Franchitti taking the checkers at Long Beach and Dixon doing so at Kansas.

This year, they opened the season with Ganassi's first failure to score a top five with either car since Kentucky last year. Dixon crashed out at St. Petersburg, and Franchitti placed a middling 12th in his attempt at defending his Long Beach crown. It was, to say the least, not the Target Chip Ganassi Racing team that we expected.

In a pre-race interview with Versus at Long Beach, Dixon suggested that the Ganassi cars are actually running better than their Penske counterparts, but poor qualifying has brought them down. The argument actually has some merit; since Franchitti's pole in Brazil, the Ganassi cars have slid down the time trial charts, but have led laps in every race but the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama. Even there, they finished second and third. Helio Castroneves, despite his second place points standing, only has one podium, his win at Alabama. Ryan Briscoe is off the pace of the top cars after crashing to throw away a win in Brazil. But up against Power, neither Dixon nor Franchitti has really had any strong stuff.

So where's the team that won ten races last year?

The ovals coming up on the schedule may bring out the best in the Ganassi team. Last year, six of their ten wins came on oval tracks, including victories at two of the next four races on the schedule (Kansas and Iowa). Four of the five times that both drivers had podium finishes came on oval tracks, including both 1-2 finishes (Richmond and Motegi). At Kansas and Indianapolis, Dixon led the most laps in the race, and Franchitti won the pole at Texas.

You can also bet that their Indianapolis 500 program will be more focused than ever before, now that pole qualifying counts for half race points. Last year, Franchitti qualified third, while Dixon started fifth. Both led at least a quarter of the race, and Dixon led the most laps with 73. But Dixon was passed on a restart by Castroneves after Franchitti lost track position, and the team had its first race of the season where both cars failed to finish in the top five. The team's third car for Alex Lloyd, run in partnership with Sam Schmidt Motorsports, ran 13th after starting 11th.

This year, Ganassi has replaced Lloyd with Townsend Bell, who finished a surprise fourth in last year's race for KV Racing Technology. With a history of strong finishes, Bell will provide a better foil for the team's two lead drivers, as they attempt to win Ganassi's third Indianapolis 500 and first since 2008.

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