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Ganassi drivers battle to salvage solid finishes

ST. PETERSBURG — Team Penske and Chip Ganassi Racing traded barbs last week, with Penske president Tim Cindric comparing the IndyCar's powerhouse teams to the Yankees and Marlins.

Penske's Yankees won Sunday, placing two drivers in the top three. But Ganassi's Marlins weren't too far behind.

Tony Kanaan and Scott Dixon battled car problems to finish in the top six, and Ganassi overcame a handful of other problems to place three of its cars in the top 10.

"Hard," Kanaan called his team debut. "Really hard."

Kanaan began by embracing the expectations of his prized No. 10 car by hugging its previous driver, Dario Franchitti, just before hopping into the cockpit. A concussion sustained in a race last year forced Franchitti, the four-time series champion, to retire during the offseason.

Four laps into his new ride, Kanaan had his first major problem.

The defending Indianapolis 500 champion moved a knob that helps his car save fuel. The piece broke. Kanaan estimated the mechanical failure cost his car a half-second per lap — and a couple of spots on the track.

"When you have a bad day and you have problems and you finish sixth, it's pretty good," Kanaan said.

Dixon had his usual steady, consistent race to take fourth. The defending series champion never led but ran in the top 10 all day.

Dixon said his No. 9 car was hard to drive, and he got off-strategy by pitting early. His team is still adjusting to Honda engines after switching from Chevrolet in the offseason, and Dixon said his car was fast but not blazing.

"I definitely had to hold on," Dixon said. "It was a hell of a workout."

But considering the struggles Dixon has had here — including a run of four consecutive finishes outside the top 15, a 20th-place qualifying run last year and no victories — he wouldn't complain too much. The three-time series champion left with an intact car and a fourth-place standing in the points race.

"We finished, and that's the main thing," Dixon said. "We've had some pretty dreadful runs here."

Ganassi newcomer Ryan Briscoe ran into problems of his own. The 2009 Grand Prix winner hit Penske's Juan Pablo Montoya exiting the pits and damaged the front of his No. 8 car. Briscoe, a former Penske racer, held on for 10th to snap a streak of eight finishes of 12th or worse.

Although the final Ganassi driver, Charlie Kimball, had mechanical problems and finished 20th, Kanaan said he was pleased his team had a solid points day — one that kept Penske from pulling too far ahead.

"It's great for the championship," said Kanaan, who won the series title in 2004. "It's going to be a tight one, so we need to take any points we can get. For all the problems we had during the day, it was a great result."

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter at @MattHomeTeam.

Monday, March 31, 2014 , Section C | 

Ganassi drivers battle to salvage solid finishes 03/30/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 30, 2014 10:56pm]
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