NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Up to Speed: Chip Ganassi Racing Wastes Its 2020 Potential

Back in the spring of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to heat up, Chip Ganassi Racing had a mess on its hands.  While participating in an iRacing event on Easter Sunday, Kyle Larson uttered a racial slur over what he thought was a private communication line.  Unfortunately for him, the line wasn’t private.  Within the next 24 hours, Larson’s major sponsors had denounced him and he was suspended by NASCAR.  The following day, CGR fired him.

Larson’s run of six seasons and four races with CGR often felt like a microcosm of the whole organization’s performance.  A number of times, he appeared on the doorstep of rising from an occasional winner to one of NASCAR’s biggest stars.  Yet, for as much potential as Larson showed, he struggled to close races and earn consistently great results.  His daredevil style and admirable car control earned him a lot of praise. But the No. 42 team never came close to a championship while Larson was driving.

That has been the story of CGR since Larson moved to the Cup Series in 2014.  After a flurry of mergers and personnel turnover early in the decade, a leaner and meaner Ganassi team with Larson and a revitalized Jamie McMurray began to pull the organization out of the doldrums.  Both drivers became regular postseason participants and, for awhile, it looked as if CGR might be recapturing its magic from the early 2000s.  Back then, Sterling Marlin nearly captured the 2002 title before a neck injury at Kansas Speedway shortened his season that fall.

However, like Larson himself, the team was unable to consistently challenge the truly elite organizations of NASCAR. Recall Larson’s 2017 season and how his playoff run ended.  After winning four races in the regular season, he looked like one of the top-tier favorites to win the championship.  But when the No. 42 blew a motor at Kansas, he was eliminated in the Round of 12.  CGR’s best chance to win a title in over a decade went up in smoke.

Fast forward to this year and Larson’s moment of ignorance put the whole team in a serious bind.  For two weeks, speculation ran rampant about who would replace him until Ganassi revealed Matt Kenseth would take over the No. 42.  Bringing Kenseth on was a surprise, but it made sense on paper.  Kenseth has a long-standing reputation as a good team builder and someone who could smooth over any lingering sponsor tensions.  Pairing him with former teammate and old buddy Kurt Busch was a great move as well.  Busch, who replaced McMurray in 2019, now had a chance to become CGR’s top title threat.

In short, Chip Ganassi Racing was set up to have a great year in 2020, even after Larson’s ouster.  Instead, with three races to go, it is clear that not even the sublime talents of Busch and Kenseth can fix CGR’s issues.  The organization has completely wasted all the potential it had for a great year.

Busch, to his credit, has enjoyed a good playoff run.  Few would have expected the No. 1 team to advance to the Round of 8.  But, just like Larson three years ago, a blown engine at Kansas will probably take Busch out of title contention.  Busch does have the luxury of two races left in the Round of 8 to earn a win and automatically advance to the final round of the playoffs.

However, it is hard to see him getting another chance.  While Busch played the ending of the Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway brilliantly a few weeks ago, a strategy play by crew chief Matt McCall was what got him to the front of the pack in the first place.  Note also that the No. 1 team tried a similar strategy at Richmond Raceway two weeks earlier that completely backfired. In fact, it probably cost Busch a top-10 finish.  With only 142 laps led this season, it almost feels like Busch was able to win in spite of his team, not because of them.

As for Kenseth, his 2020 comeback has been an absolute mess.  It feels as if something has gone wrong with the No. 42 team every single week, often simple mistakes that a professional race team should not constantly make.  From slow pit stops, to loose wheels, to ill-handling cars, to inexplicable mechanical failures, Kenseth has rarely had a chance to compete this year without his team getting in the way.  The most baffling miscue of the season came in Sunday’s race when Kenseth veered into Erik Jones for no apparent reason, wrecking both cars.  A simple “not clear” from the No. 42’s spotter could have easily prevented the whole thing.

Kenseth has made his share of errors this year, too, and the lack of practice time may have hampered his comeback after years of sitting on the sidelines. Yet there is ample evidence to suggest the struggles of the No. 42 this year are not his fault.  Remember that Kenseth nearly won at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in July, the one time this year where he actually had a fast car.  At other tracks, namely Darlington Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Pocono Raceway, Kenseth was able to put up decent results.  If the driver is the problem with the No. 42, why are all of Kenseth’s best results this season at difficult tracks where patience and experience matter most?

It seems odd that a driver with a track record of making teams better could struggle so much unless the team around him has some serious flaws to address.  When Kenseth went back to Roush Fenway Racing in 2018, that organization was clearly worse off than CGR is this year.  Yet by the end of the season, he was looking much more competitive.

In 2020, Kenseth has run about twice as many races as he did with RFR two years ago, but the cars haven’t gotten any faster.  How is it that the 2003 Cup champion, before crashing on Sunday, was struggling to run in the top 25 at one of his best tracks?  (He’s won twice in his career at Kansas). Has a lack of practice time really hurt the No. 42 team that much?

Suffice it to say Sunday’s race was the low point of the year for CGR, even including the Larson incident.  The team will now move forward with Ross Chastain in 2021 and have Busch for at least one more season.  In a few years, CGR will have two younger drivers and the Busch/Kenseth combo will be a distant memory.

It’s a shame because given the importance of veteran experience in the Cup Series, Kenseth and Busch could have been the ones to finally take CGR to the next level.  But judging by its performance this year, the No. 42 team seemingly threw in the towel about five seconds after Larson keyed up his microphone.  Hopefully, what little chance Busch still has at the championship doesn’t go to waste as well.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transfered to AWeber ( more information )
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

About Bryan Gable

Avatar
Bryan began writing for Frontstretch in 2016. He has penned Up to Speed for the past three years. A lifelong fan of racing, Bryan is a published author and aspiring motorsports historian. He is a native of Columbus, Ohio and currently resides in Southwest Florida.

23 comments

  1. Avatar

    Wow Bryan, hate Larson much? It’s all Larson’s fault this team sucks? Gimme a break!

  2. Avatar

    While I have been a fan of Matt Kenseth for his entire racing career, I have not been impressed with his driving 2018 and 2020. It did seem like not getting any practice time with his crew, spotter, and crew chiefs was a serious hindrance to a driver that has always improved his car during practice runs and was usually very competitive by race day. But Matt has clearly lost some reaction speed and does not handle sudden situations on the track very well any more. Most of us have lost the quick reflexes of youth by the time we reached our 40s and Matt will be 49 in March. Another problem Matt has is that he has always been lousy at representing his sponsors and has lost several sponsors over the years because of his self depreciating personality, which is what I have always like about him. I agree that Matt’s team mailed it in early and the last eight to ten races he has had terrible cars and set-ups. Chip could see what was going on, but there were just too many problems to solve all at once. The crew chief did get fired about halfway through the season, but I think the more serious problems were upstairs in the spotters section where even Larson had difficulties frequently.
    But, don’t run down Larson too much because I am sure that he could have averaged at least 6-8 positions better than Matt did and could have made the Playoffs easily. Larson is that good of a driver. But he has always had an over aggressive streak that has cost him great finishes in a bunch of races. Sort of like Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who never will learn to protect his bosses cars from needless damage.
    As far as I am concerned, 2020 is a lost year for most of the country and I blame the politicians, not the race car drivers.

    • Avatar

      I blame the Chinese for 2020 like I blame Hitler for WWII and the cancelling of the INDY 500 in the early forties.

      • Avatar

        I think the blame for 2020 is a lot closer to home than China. There is only one person today who is really the equal of Hitler.

        • Avatar

          Keep your liberal political crap off this page. As I said replying to your post on Kyle Larson “we already know who your voting for.“

          • Avatar

            I believe TomB started the discussion when he mentioned Hitler and China. Furthermore, I know you would prefer a full-blooded white boy as your new hero, but since you think Larson was aggrieved by BLM, he’ll have do to. Carry on. Proud Boy!

  3. Avatar

    WHEN Larson gets picked up by a top tier team (most likely SHR or HMS) you will see him become a regular threat to win. Ganassi is on the edge of being a top tier team but has never been able to rise above that level. Anyone who expected Kenseth to come in cold after sitting out pretty much two seasons must not understand how difficult it is to be successful in Cup. There are a million moving parts and they all need to be working like a well oiled machine before any driver can get consistent good finishes,

  4. Avatar

    It’s called Karma and ganassi is getting a big spoon full, by contrast Larson is having s great year with over 40 wins, anyone else notice how NASCAR is cheating for Chase Elliott, 1st at Talladega he went below the line and now this week at kansas ,no radio and NASCAR played dumb like they did not know but everyone watching on tv knew he had no radio

    • Avatar

      Are you implying that NA$CAR plays favourites? What ever have they done in the past would make you think that?

    • Avatar

      NASCAR wants Chase in the final round, but something always comes along to ruin it. This year it may be Joey Logano winning.

    • Avatar

      40 wins in Sprint cars has no relevance to Cup racing in NASCAR. Larson has been touted as the “next big thing” ever since his first Cup race, but has NEVER lived up to expectations. If he goes to HMS, he will be a major departure from the typical classy HMS driver and will not bring any positives to that team. Look for plenty of dissension within the organization due to Larson’s “me first, me only” attitude.

      • Avatar

        Just wondering… besides the obvious N word heard around the world, what else has he done for you to label him classless? I don’t care one way or the other. My overall opinion of him was favorable before “the event” but I wouldn’t say I was a fan (beyond seeing someone win not on HMS, SHR, JGR or Penske). I can’t say I remember too many controversies surrounding him but if it isn’t talked about on a Cup broadcast or on Frontstretch or Jayski I probably wouldn’t have heard.

        • Avatar

          I don’t believe Larson is a racist. But I do believe his new fans certainly are. He is the new Great White Hope and represents salvation to the Confederate-flag waving racists in the NASCAR fan base. Prior to “the incident,” Larson was just another over-hyped young driver, but one totally lacking in personality or the ability to attract fans with his attitude of superiority.

          • Avatar

            He moron Larson is of Asian decent. You Libs really are stupid

          • Avatar

            TiminPayson, I know Larson is half-Asian. But his use of the “N” word makes him popular among the racists anyway. You see him as oppressed by the BLM movement. I’m sure you’d prefer he was a blonde white guy, but you have to make do. Go fly your Confederate loser’s flag. I’m an American and the U.S. flag is the only one I fly.

          • Avatar

            Jo, please leave your LIBERALISM at the door. I have a confederate flag flying. I know my history. The flag is for STATES RIGHTS, not SLAVERY! Democrats are the RACISTS with them starting the Klan, Jim Crow Laws, and discrimination. Liberals ruin a everything -from Education to American History to sports…

    • Avatar

      I was thinking the same thing about the lack of radio communication at Kansas. That was appalling about the no call yellow line violation at Talledega.

      • Avatar

        Well, then it’s certainly good for you that you will have someone more your style to cheer for when Kyle Larson is given a hero’s welcome back to NASCAR. Be sure to have your Confederate flag ready to salute his return.

  5. Avatar

    I often wonder about the future for CGR. The organization has been in a steady decline since Target ended their relationship a few years ago. Then Felix Sabates retired and cashed out. Plus the notorious, Bob Kaufmann replaced Felix as Chip’s main partner. Let’s not forget that Bob made his reputation by helping to send Mikey Waltrip Racing to NASCAR’s junkyard of failed organizations. Bob Kaufmann is also the architect of the stupid “charter system”, which helped him squeeze the last drops of value out of the carcass of MWR before its demise.

    As the old saying goes, “The fish rots from the head”.

  6. Avatar

    Who knows maybe Kyle Larson can get Spire Motorsports or Rick Ware Racing from a bottom 5
    team to a top 25 team since that maybe all he will get since Ford.GM & Toyota will not be placing
    him on a factory team since GM already denounced him and Ford & Toyota not having room on
    any of the factory teams they support.

  7. Avatar

    TiminPayson, I know Larson is half-Asian. But his use of the “N” word makes him popular among the racists anyway. You see him as oppressed by the BLM movement. I’m sure you’d prefer he was a blonde white guy, but you have to make do. Go fly your Confederate loser’s flag. I’m an American and the U.S. flag is the only one I fly.