SONOMA — Roger Penske stood atop the timing stand at Sonoma Raceway, transfixed by the overtime laps of NASCAR’s playoff opening race at Las Vegas. He had three drivers in contention for a critical victory, and when Brad Keselowski crossed the finish line for Team Penske’s 500th organizational win, the Captain pumped his fist in the air.
Two hours later, Scott Dixon gave Chip Ganassi Racing its 12th IndyCar championship and team owner Ganassi was far more demonstrative than Penske in the celebration. Ganassi dove off the championship stage for a brief go at crowd surfing, same as he did the last time Dixon won a title.
It was one of those rare days in racing when NASCAR and IndyCar were in sync. The playoffs began in Las Vegas and Keselowski’s three-race winning streak has turned a staid NASCAR season upside down. When that action-packed race ended, NBC Sports Network went directly to the IndyCar season finale and Dixon’s bid for a fifth series title.
Both events fittingly belonged to Penske and Ganassi. Both left Sonoma victorious and proved again how vital they are to motorsports.
It took Penske 52 years of racing across the globe to get to 500 victories, and he did it with 50 different drivers across 14 series. Will Power in May gave the organization its 17th victory in the Indianapolis 500.
“Reaching 500 wins is really more proof of what racing means to Roger and everyone in the organization,” said four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears. “It shows their continued dedication to the sport and how much Roger loves it, and it’s still so important to him.”
Ganassi’s resume isn’t as sharp as rival Penske, but the owner has certainly enjoyed chasing the titan of motorsports. And unlike Penske, who views racing as his getaway from his global business empire, Ganassi has no other job. Owning a race team is how Ganassi makes his living, so winning is essential to his success.
The victories have come at a fevered pitch with Dixon, pushed midway through his career by close friend Dario Franchitti and unrivaled since Franchitti’s retirement. Dixon’s 18-year career now includes five titles — one more than Franchitti, two fewer than A.J. Foyt’s record — and he finished second to Franchitti in the championship race twice.
The title run this year came in a flawless season in which Dixon finished all but four of IndyCar’s 2,368 laps, an astounding 99.8 percent completion during a free agency year in which he was courted by others. He’s 38 and the longest-tenured driver in Ganassi team history — 17 seasons, a lifetime with a short-fused boss who doesn’t suffer fools.
“I’m trying to remember my first experience with him,” Ganassi said. “I just remember, like, I would say things. He’d say, “OK.” I’d say something else. He’d say, “Yes.” I mean “yes” and “OK” were the first 37 things he said to me. That was it. Does this guy say anything? I’m thinking, ‘This kid is good, but does he say anything?’ Obviously he developed into a gem of a guy. Back then, he was a kid from New Zealand. I wasn’t sure he could string sentences together. But he’s OK. He’s great now.”
Dixon said after Sunday’s championship celebration he did indeed talk to other teams before agreeing to an extension with Ganassi, ultimately deciding the organization is where he belongs.
“Chip has a big heart. He can come across harsh, brash, but he’s always been a good friend of mine,” Dixon said. “There was definitely a period throughout this year where we were talking to other people, but it just felt right. It felt right. Felt like this was home, somewhere that I should stick out for the time being.”
Now both Penske and Ganassi shift their focus away from IndyCar to their other motorsports properties. That includes nine remaining races in NASCAR’s playoffs and possibly more celebrations. Kyle Larson finished second in a Ganassi car to Keselowski in Las Vegas, and Ross Chastain drove a Ganassi car to victory in the Xfinity Series race a day before.
There’s a symmetry to a weekend that belonged to Penske and Ganassi, that it came in NBCSN packaged programming designed to expose viewers to both series and show how intertwined the motorsports community can be.
Racing can be cruel and this season has been hard on many. Attendance and television ratings are challenges for every series, sponsorship is scarce, many business models are broken and the race teams — even the ones with the deepest pockets — are chasing money. IndyCar’s Robert Wickens remains hospitalized with a spinal cord injury and Martin Truex Jr.’s championship-winning NASCAR team is shutting down in November.
NASCAR is leaderless since Chairman Brian France’s arrest in November and Jay Frye, the executive widely credited with helping IndyCar find recent stability, is believed to be mulling a return to NASCAR. Chastain was driving the Ganassi car for free when he won in Las Vegas.
Racing has had a rough go lately, which makes days like Sunday all the more special. It emphasized the importance of a Ganassi and a Penske, the brilliance of Dixon, the gusto of Keselowski — the elements that define what’s good about motorsports.