Ganassi, Target optimistic about Sprint Cup prospects
March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
LAS VEGAS — As the music thumped away, acrobatic women hung from the ceiling and twirled around on large rings. Partygoers mingled around shiny silver race cars and firesuits in display cases.
That was the scene Friday night at a Target event at the Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, where the company celebrated its 25-year union with Chip Ganassi Racing.
It’s common for sponsors to take advantage of NASCAR’s annual visit to Sin City —it’s more of a destination than, say, Pocono — but this was a particularly big shindig. And if team owner Chip Ganassi has his way, it won’t be the last party of the weekend.
Ganassi driver Jamie McMurray was the fastest in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and rookie Kyle Larson — the team’s Target-sponsored NASCAR driver — was sixth.
After Ganassi’s cars finished 15th and 21st in the point standings last year, there are signs this year could be better. Could a win happen as soon as Sunday’s Kobalt 400?
“I’m looking for two cars in the Chase,” Ganassi told USA TODAY Sports over the din of the party. “Is it realistic? I think so.”
Ganassi’s IndyCar success with Target as a sponsor is well-documented: 10 series championships, more than 90 wins, 80 pole positions and four victories in the Indianapolis 500.
But in NASCAR, the results haven’t been nearly as good. Target has just one NASCAR victory — which came with Juan Pablo Montoya in 2010 — despite being a full-time primary sponsor since 2002.
Larson replaced Montoya in the Target-sponsored No. 42 Chevrolet this year. Montoya, after seven years driving the car for Ganassi in the Sprint Cup Series, returned to open-wheel racing in 2014, with a full-time ride with Ganassi’s IndyCar rival Team Penske.
Both Target and Ganassi hope to add more wins to their haul with Larson, who has shown promising speed so far along with veteran teammate McMurray.
“The obvious thing is Jamie, out of nowhere, all of the sudden has qualified the last two weeks in the top seven,” Ganassi said. “We’re racing better, the pit stops are better. Something good is coming.”
How soon something good comes for the 21-year-old Larson remains to be seen. Target vice president of marketing Dan Griffis said the company is aware of potential rookie growing pains — it went through them with Casey Mears and Reed Sorenson — and will have patience as Larson develops.
Target views Larson in the same category as its action sports spokesmen like Shaun White, Ryan Dungey and Paul Rodriguez — young, digitally active and with “tremendous upside,” Griffis said.
“We think Kyle fits right in there,” he said. “… Kyle represents something pretty special.”
It was ultimately Ganassi’s call to part ways with Montoya and elevate Larson to Sprint Cup after just one year of Nationwide Series competition, though Target was heavily consulted on the move.
“We had a lot of discussion around it,” Griffis said. “It was not an easy decision. Juan was a really important part of our racing program for a long time. We love Juan. He’s a great guy.
“But ultimately it’s Chip’s company and it’s a partnership. He came to us and said, ‘Here are some options.’ We talked about it and it was Chip’s decision. We support him 100 percent.”
Larson, who acknowledged before the season he had much to learn, said he’s already getting more comfortable in Sprint Cup Series cars.
The car has been fast enough, he said, but rookie mistakes (like in the Daytona 500) have hurt the final result. Larson was disappointed to finish 20th last week at Phoenix International Raceway after starting eighth — though the finish was still tops among the series’ eight rookies.
“Once the race starts, it’s intense,” Larson said. “I’ve got to get used to that and understand how the car is going to feel in totally different air. I need to get better at expecting what’s going to happen.”