NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Up to Speed: The One That Got Away From Sterling Marlin & Chip Ganassi Racing

In a NASCAR season full of big surprises, Chip Ganassi was the latest person to drop a bombshell.  Ganassi revealed on Wednesday (June 30) that he would sell his NASCAR team to Justin Marks and Trackhouse Racing at the end of the year.  Although he remains a fixture in the American motorsports scene with operations in other series, Ganassi’s tenure of over 20 years in NASCAR will soon come to an end.

Chip Ganassi Racing had a largely successful run in NASCAR.  The team’s highlights include scoring Dodge’s first win in its 2001 return to the Cup Series, claiming victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 with Jamie McMurray in a single season and launching the career of Kyle Larson.  Yet amid those flashes of brilliance, CGR struggled to consistently compete with NASCAR’s top teams.  The Cup Series championship has eluded Ganassi.  The organization’s first good chance to win the big prize was in 2002 with Sterling Marlin.  That campaign ended in bitter disappointment.  Considering that CGR may never get another shot at the Cup Series title, it makes Marlin’s and the No. 40 team’s loss hurt even more.

By the time he and Ganassi first joined forces, Marlin had already experienced a career’s worth of ups and downs.  Winning Rookie of the Year in 1983, Marlin drove for notable team owners like Junior Johnson and Billy Hagan early in his career but was unable to reach victory lane.  He was a seasoned veteran when he moved to Morgan McClure Motorsports in 1994 and finally scored his first win in the Daytona 500.  It was a great pairing in the short term.  Marlin’s natural drafting talent and Morgan McClure’s powerful superspeedway motors, built by Runt Pittman, made the No. 4 Kodak Chevy a force on NASCAR’s biggest tracks.

But after a slow fade in performance, Marlin jumped to Felix Sabates’ SABCO Racing in 1998.  There, he scored only three top fives in three seasons.  Four years removed from his final win with Morgan McClure, it was worth wondering if Marlin had anything left in the tank.

Enter Ganassi, who bought a majority interest in SABCO for the 2001 season and became one of the new Dodge team owners.  He provided the shot in the arm Marlin and the No. 40 team needed.  They scored wins at Michigan International Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway and ultimately placed third in points, Marlin’s best showing since 1995.  Most importantly, Marlin was fast just about every week.  He led a total of 535 laps in 2001, which was only 15 laps shy of his combined total for the previous four seasons.  The immediate results of Ganassi’s new team quickly turned Marlin back into a front-runner.

The 2002 season began rather infamously for Marlin during the Daytona 500.  While leading the race and parked on the backstretch during a red flag with five laps to go, Marlin jumped out of his car in an attempt to fix a fender rubbing against his right front tire.  However, since Marlin was working on the car during a red flag, he drew a penalty from NASCAR and lost his opportunity to win the race.  Yet Marlin was still able to rally for a top-10 finish.  At Rockingham the following week, Marlin took the points lead.  He then won two of the next three races, showing that CGR had not missed a beat from last year.

If Marlin had previously been known only as a superspeedway specialist, there was no doubt that he had blossomed into a weekly contender with Ganassi.  Race by race, the No. 40 team padded its points lead.  Even after blowing an engine at Sonoma and finishing last, Marlin and Ganassi shook off the bad result and went right back to work.  Following a top five in the Southern 500, Marlin held a 91-point lead with 11 races to go.  Although defending champion Jeff Gordon was starting to mount a challenge, Marlin and Ganassi had every reason to believe they could still win the title.

Then, disaster struck at Richmond the following week.  Just 10 laps into the race, Marlin slammed into the turn 3 wall.  Thanks to another last-place finish, the No. 40’s point lead fell to nine.  One week later at New Hampshire, Marlin lost the point lead for the first time since the Daytona 500.  He never got it back.  A few weeks later at Kansas, Marlin crashed into the wall again, this time suffering a cracked vertebra in his neck, an injury that ended Marlin’s season with seven races left.  The No. 40 team did get one more win that season, with McMurray scoring a win in just his second Cup Series start.  Yet it was heartbreaking to see Marlin’s and Ganassi’s shot at the championship end so quickly after such a great season.

Marlin came back to race in 2003, but the magic was clearly gone.  It is hard to say whether injuries and age caught up with him, or if changes within CGR’s teams worked against him, but he failed to score a single top five all season.  Following two more lackluster seasons, Marlin and Ganassi parted ways.  Marlin’s NASCAR career ended quietly, racing part-time into 2009.

Nearly 20 years later, Ganassi has never been so close to a championship as he was with Marlin.  Larson had a great season going in 2017, but more misfortune at Kansas, this time a blown engine, knocked him out of the playoffs.  More often, CGR drivers have experienced good seasons intermixed with years where they have struggled just to make the postseason.  To Ganassi’s credit, he hung on through years of new cars, new points formats, OEM changes, and mergers with other teams, riding through the waves of inconsistency and trying to find that magical combination he had with Marlin.  But barring a big surprise from Kurt Busch or Ross Chastain, Ganassi will walk away at the end of this season without NASCAR’s biggest prize.

NASCAR is full of stories of triumph and heartbreak.  Drivers and team owners come and go.  But Marlin’s and Ganassi’s pairing is remarkable because of how quickly it revived Marlin’s career.  Unfortunately, it all came to an end just as quickly.

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