CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A bleary-eyed Chip Ganassi apologized in advance Monday if he appeared tired. He stayed home in Pittsburgh to attend the AFC Championship Game, a can't-miss event for true Steelers fans.
The racing mogul then praised the Rooney family for the way they've always run their business — behind the scenes, quietly, letting their football team do the talking.
In a way, Ganassi's outfit is a lot more like the football team and its blue-collar city than he'd ever admit.
In an economy that shook race teams to their core, Ganassi made every move possible to keep his organization afloat.
The result was the most successful year in a career spanning more than two decades.
All six drivers under the Ganassi umbrella reached Victory Lane last season. Dario Franchitti claimed the IndyCar championship, and Scott Pruett and Memo Rojas teamed to win the Grand-Am Rolex title.
There was Jamie McMurray's season-opening victory in the Daytona 500, followed by Franchitti's win at the Indianapolis 500 and McMurray again at the Brickyard 400. The trifecta made Ganassi the only car owner to sweep the three biggest races in America, and his 19 wins spanning three series marked a team record.
His IndyCar and Grand-Am success surprised no one. But the breakthrough by Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in NASCAR — McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya combined to win four races, three of them crown jewels — took skeptics by surprise.
"It's just a matter of making a plan and staying with your plan," Ganassi said Monday during the annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour.
But that wasn't always easy considering the uncertainty around his NASCAR team. The economy helped forge a merger with troubled Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the 2008 season to keep both teams afloat.
Ganassi inherited driver Martin Truex and his sponsor, but Truex announced he was moving on at the end of 2009. About the same time, Ganassi faced a serious health issue that kept him away from the track. But Ganassi kept those distractions away from his organization.
"None of us listen to that stuff," team president Steve Lauletta said.
Those who know Ganassi well say he has no choice but to go all out. Unlike most team owners, racing is his only business. He doesn't have car dealerships, isn't a parts distributor and spends all of his time on his race teams.
"Chip is hands-on; he is on the phone every day with everybody," team co-owner Felix Sabates said. "He's on the phone to the drivers, the crew chiefs, to me, and it's because the man only knows one thing — racing. His whole life is built around race cars."
So what does Ganassi do for an encore?
"I don't think you look at it in terms of encores or trying to top last year," he said. "You just go out week in and week out, the most important race on the schedule is the next race."
HORNISH RIDE: Sam Hornish said he hopes to run at least 11 NASCAR Nationwide series races this season for Penske Racing. He said a lack of sponsorship forced Penske to drop his Sprint Cup ride.