CONCORD, N.C. — The mood was visibly subdued at Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing’s appearance at the annual NASCAR Sprint Media Tour on Tuesday.
Team owner Chip Ganassi didn’t mince words when taking about the previous season.
“We were 21st and 27th in the points,” Ganassi said. “That’s pathetic with the resources we have.”
The finishes of 21st by Juan Pablo Montoya and 27th by Jamie McMurray in the point standings prompted Ganassi to make the tough decision to let go of competition director Steve Hmiel and team manager Tony Glover during the offseason.
A year after picking up his second career win, Montoya followed it up by finishing outside the lead lap in 16 of 36 races. McMurray had some of 2010’s biggest wins — the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the fall race at Charlotte — but never came close to winning in 2011.
Overall, the drivers combined for just four top-five and 12 top-10 finishes a season ago.
“Nothing changed from the year before. That’s what makes it so frustrating,” said McMurray, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet. “It wasn’t like we went back and tried to reinvent the wheel.
“The year before, we would have the balance not right and we still would have one of the fastest cars. Last year, we would have the car where it turned good and we wouldn’t have the speed we needed. There’s nothing more frustrating than having a bad season and going to the track with the same stuff you’ve been struggling with the last five weeks.”
The drivers met with Ganassi last June to complain about the situation, but McMurray added it’s hard for a driver to say what’s wrong because he’s not at the shop every day.
Ganassi told the duo he wasn’t going to make a knee-jerk reaction. A former driver, himself, Ganassi is known for giving his employees a lot of latitude when making decisions. He said the changes, especially letting go of the longtime team members, were difficult.
“I wasn’t disappointed in the people,” Ganassi said. “I was disappointed in the results. But you have to see the results at some point.”
The owner shouldered much of the blame for the team’s failures, which became magnified by his success in other racing series like Indy Car and Grand Am sports cars. Ganassi said changing the direction of a race team is difficult under the best circumstances, and nearly impossible to do in the middle of a NASCAR season.
“It’s easy to look back with 20/20 vision,” he said. “When you’re in the middle of battle, it’s hard to take your troops and change 180 degrees.”
He drew an analogy of baking a pie with the shake-ups, commenting, “It’s about getting the recipe just right and finding that right mix of ingredients.”
McMurray, who said that Ganassi stayed supportive of the drivers throughout the ordeal, felt some progress was made at the end of the season.
Montoya led laps in three of the final six races and McMurray put up respectable performances in the final two races at Phoenix and Miami.
A team owner in NASCAR for over a decade, Ganassi’s teams have won 10 races in the Sprint Cup Series with a best points finish of third by Sterling Marlin in 2001.
“We’ve had ups and downs, but the high points outweigh the low points,” he said. “But, it’s time to put some numbers up.”
Team co-owner Felix Sabates was more direct about the expectations.
“We look at this way, Chip has been so successful everywhere he’s been except here,” Sabates said. “We’ve been successful, but not like the other series. It’s time for us to put up or shut up.”
Jeff Birchfield is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.