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MOTOR RACING

NASCAR's merged teams seek more profit, fewer losses

Mergers that created new teams like the partnership between Chip Ganassi and Dale Earnhardt Inc. were born of financial necessity but could pay off on the track too.

February 22, 2009|Jim Peltz

If anyone personifies the new world facing NASCAR, it might be Chip Ganassi.

A former racer turned businessman and team owner, Ganassi has fielded cars that have excelled in the IndyCar Series and sports-car racing but have struggled in NASCAR's Sprint Cup stock-car racing series.

And with the sour economy now drying up sponsorship dollars -- putting an even higher premium on winning -- Ganassi and his NASCAR partner, Felix Sabates, merged their operation in the off-season with another mediocre team, Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Time was running out, Ganassi said Saturday ahead of today's Auto Club 500 in Fontana.

"For us to get where we needed to be [competitively], we were going to be two or three years away" without the merger, he said. "Who has time to wait all these seasons to build? This leapfrogged us to that point."

The new Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates team will field three drivers in Chevrolets for today's race at Auto Club Speedway: Martin Truex Jr., Juan Pablo Montoya and Aric Almirola.

The 250-lap race at the two-mile Fontana oval is the second stop on the 36-race Cup schedule, following last week's Daytona 500 won by Matt Kenseth.

Although all teams have struggled to retain sponsors or attract new ones, the problem has been acute for teams with poor records on the track, prompting mergers such as Ganassi's.

Another recent marriage combined Petty Enterprises with Gillett Evernham Motorsports, creating Richard Petty Motorsports.

"We did ours for performance purposes," Ganassi said. "We were financially OK, we just weren't where we wanted to be in terms of performance.

"We wanted to give Juan some stronger teammates. We needed better engines, we needed a bunch of things. And the only way you could get those is coming together with somebody."

Indeed, NASCAR has been rough sledding for Ganassi, who won last year's IndyCar Series championship with driver Scott Dixon. Ganassi's NASCAR team has only six wins since its formation in 2001, the most recent being Montoya's victory at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., in 2007.

Ganassi's drivers last year were Montoya, Reed Sorenson and, for a while, Dario Franchitti. Like Montoya, Franchitti was a former Indianapolis 500 winner brought to NASCAR by Ganassi.

But before the season was half over, Ganassi stunned the sport by shutting down Franchitti's team for lack of sponsorship, and Franchitti has since returned to Indy cars. "We were just the first team to recognize the inevitable" about falling sponsorship spending, Ganassi said.

DEI had fared little better. Founded by the late seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt and wife Teresa Earnhardt, the team had earned only three wins since 2004 -- a shortcoming that contributed to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s decision to leave the family team for Hendrick last year.

All of which led former DEI executive Max Siegel to meet Ganassi one morning last fall at a Starbucks in Concord, N.C., to discuss a merger.

"I remember him saying right off the bat, he wanted to do what was right for DEI and he saw where an association with us would be better for their company," Ganassi said.

But are Earnhardt Ganassi's drivers any more competitive than a year ago?

"Absolutely," he said, pointing to Truex's winning the pole position in the Daytona 500. "With the merger, we have a larger group of people that have a stronger sense of racing, a stronger sense of winning."

Even so, Ganassi still faces the challenge of finding enough sponsorship money.

Truex and Montoya have secured primary sponsors for the full season, but with Almirola "we're piecing it together much like we did a year ago with Franchitti," Ganassi said.

"I hope we can keep that thing going, but right now it's six to 10 races or something," he said.

"It's going to be tough. Everybody wants performance these days, they need results."

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james.peltz@latimes.com

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