McMurray and Montoya like direction of team
SONOMA, Calif. — It's been a continuous search for consistency at Chip Ganassi Racing, where the NASCAR program has never matched the performance levels of its dominant IndyCar entries.
But there's no bitterness from Juan Pablo Montoya or Jamie McMurray, who have watched from afar as IndyCar counterparts Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon race for wins and championships every year.
"I don't think we are jealous," McMurray said. "We are happy for those guys."
Franchitti, the four-time IndyCar champion, won his third Indianapolis 500 last month, and Dixon reached Victory Lane a week later at Belle Isle and is currently in the thick of the title race. But they both had to overcome early season struggles, which hasn't been lost on Montoya.
"I laugh because this year has been the hardest year for them for quite a few years, and I am like 'Welcome,' " he said, smiling.
Indeed, welcome to the up-and-down battles that Montoya and McMurray have faced the last several years in Ganassi's NASCAR program. The two head into Sunday's race at Sonoma at just about the halfway mark of another rebuilding year for the organization.
McMurray is 18th in the Sprint Cup Series, Montoya is 19th and combined they have only five top-10 finishes all season. But they say their cars are better, they've had increased speed of late and they are pleased with the direction of the race team.
"I think we've done a lot of progress," Montoya said. "If you really go through the team right now and see how different everything is working, it's pretty amazing. We haven't had the results we want to have, but I think there has been a lot of really good changes and we've been putting people in the right places.
"You want to run better overnight, but things have got to change. Everybody has got to adapt, and it's a process. But I really feel we made a lot of gains with the car and a lot of gains in how the engineering program is working and we definitely have been making progress."
Ganassi and co-owner Felix Sabates had arguably the most aggressive offseason in NASCAR as sweeping changes were made to the organization. Competition director Steve Hmiel and longtime team manager Tony Glover were replaced, and Brian Pattie left the organization at the end of the season after being removed as Montoya's crew chief in late July.
Ganassi brought in Max Jones as general manager, John Probst as technical director and lured Chris Heroy away from Hendrick Motorsports to crew chief Montoya. There has been added personnel, improved engineering and a cohesiveness that was absent last season, when both drivers went winless and failed to contend for spots in the 12-driver Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.
It was a dramatic drop-off from 2010, when McMurray won three races — including the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard 400 — and the drivers were far more competitive.
"It seemed like everything was going in the right direction, and the next year (in 2011) ... we just dropped the ball completely," Montoya said. "Last year was frustrating, it was more about arguing. Once we changed everybody on the team — it's nice to be here, it's really fun to be here. We have really good people and you know they are working their butts off together to give us better race cars every weekend."
McMurray said there have been times this season when either he or Montoya has one of the fastest cars on the track, but the team is still working on getting both cars clicking at the same time and putting together complete races.
"It gets better every week. We made all those changes in the offseason, and I don't think any of us expected to change all those people around and immediately be where we were in 2010," he said. "The teams are working really well together. The way the team is structured with personnel in the engineering department and the crew chiefs, it's so much better than it was last year.
"It's a completely different environment than what it was a year ago, and it's all for the better. And Chip is still out hiring people and looking for more engineers and more people to make it better than what it is right now. My guess is somewhere around the last 10 races we're going to see a lot of the progress. It takes time."
Still, both think they'll be competitive Sunday at the road course in scenic Sonoma. Montoya will start 12th; McMurray goes off 25th.
Montoya earned his first career victory at Sonoma and has four-top 10 finishes in five starts; McMurray's career-best second-place finish at Sonoma came when he was driving a Ganassi car.
The duo also announced Friday they'll team together to run the inaugural Grand-Am race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July. They've been teammates the last two years with Dixon and Franchitti for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona race, but will be a two-driver tandem at the Brickyard.
"I think it's good for our racing relationship to get to go do things like this," McMurray said. "It seems like every year after the Rolex race, we're closer. I think that's really important for the NASCAR side, for us to be closer and want to help each other more. When we go do that race, it seems like it does that automatically.
So, I'm looking forward to getting to go up and do the test and then the race."