For Chip Ganassi, there's only one reason to be at Indy today ... to win

"I'm going there to win that thing, baby!"

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Mario has his Stanley Cups. The Rooneys have their Super Bowls. Robert Nutting and Kevin McClatchy have their ...

OK, never mind.

Let's get back on track. Literally.

Chip Ganassi has his Indianapolis 500s ...

"I'm going there to win that thing, baby!" Ganassi gushed the other day from his Pittsburgh office.

Do you think the man is confident?

You have no idea.

"I think we have Penske's number," Ganassi said.

That would be Roger Penske, 14 times a winner of the Indy 500 as a car owner. He'll have two of the favorites in the big race today. Two-time winner Helio Castroneves starts on the pole. Sam Hornish Jr., a three-time Indy Racing League champion, won the 500 last year.

And Ganassi is calling Penske out?

Well, yeah.

This isn't Ganassi's first Indy 500, either. He drove in five races, finishing eighth in '83, but his greatest success has come on the ownership end. He was co-owner of the team that won with Emerson Fittipaldi in '89. That was wonderful, but his best moment in racing came when Juan Pablo Montoya won at Indy for him in 2000. He was the man in charge then. "Next to my daughter, it's the best thing that ever happened to me," he said at the time.

Ganassi isn't exactly bringing amateurs to Indianapolis today. His drivers, Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon, are one-two in the IRL points standings. They were running one-two at Indy last year with 30 laps to go when their racing luck abandoned them. Wheldon, who has won at Homestead-Miami and Kansas this season, had to pit for a punctured tire and finished fourth. Dixon, who won the IRL championship for Ganassi in '03, was penalized for a questionable blocking infraction and finished sixth.

"I don't want to leave the impression we got [shafted] last year, but we had better cars than anyone," Ganassi said. "We're just as strong this year. It's the drivers we have. It's the preparation we've done. It's the motivation we have."

This seems like the right time to express our regrets that Ganassi, who turned 49 Thursday, has more of a passion for racing than for baseball. Do you think he might do a better job running the Pirates than Nutting and McClatchy? Everybody wants Mark Cuban to buy the team, but Ganassi would be a terrific owner. He always has taken pride in being from Pittsburgh; he was born in Monessen, raised in Fox Chapel and went to college at Duquesne. That's why he was the first local investor to join McClatchy's ownership group in the mid-'90s. He had a $2 million share of the Pirates until bailing out a while ago after the Nuttings took control. He's never detailed his reasons, but it doesn't take a genius to guess he tired of being associated with people who have no clue about operating a sports franchise and have no real interest in winning as long as the checks keep rolling in.

No one will ever accuse Ganassi of not caring about winning.

The man is mighty ticked his still-maturing NASCAR team hasn't had the same success he's had in open-wheel racing. He hasn't won the Daytona 500, although Casey Mears did finish second for him last year. He also hasn't put a driver in the Chase for the Nextel Cup and almost certainly won't this year. His drivers, Montoya, David Stremme and Reed Sorenson, rank 21st, 22nd and 29th in the point standings going into the Coca-Cola 600 tonight in Charlotte, N.C., although just about everyone is predicting stardom for Montoya, a NASCAR rookie, at least when they aren't cursing him. Regarded as one of the world's great racing talents, Montoya, who left Ganassi's CART team to make millions in Formula One before taking the unusual step of coming back to the stock cars, has been in seven wrecks this season. The other drivers shouldn't be too mad, though. The Colombian-born Montoya is putting money in their pockets because of his popularity among Latin Americans, a demographic much coveted by NASCAR.

"He just did a Nextel commercial in Spanish," Ganassi said, fairly giggling. "He's already the fifth-most popular driver in merchandise sales ...

"There's no doubt he's going to be a big star for us. But we're missing the hardened veteran right now. We so much could use one of the top six or seven veteran drivers."

Don't expect free agent Dale Earnhardt Jr. to be that guy.

"I don't think we have a chance with him, to be honest," Ganassi said. "He wants to stay with Chevrolet."

That's a dilemma for later, anyway.

Ganassi has a big race on his mind.

Two big races, actually.

Ganassi has his private jet standing by in Indianapolis and will attempt to get to Charlotte for the NASCAR race after the Indy 500.

Wheldon or Dixon could change those plans by winning, of course. Not that the boss would complain.

Nor would Montoya, for that matter.

As a former Indy winner, he knows there's no greater thrill in racing and no greater racing venue.

"The Cathedral of Speed!" television talk-show host/racing fanatic/Indy car owner David Letterman gushed when Montoya and Ganassi dropped by "The Late Show" after their win in '00.

"That was a great time," Ganassi said when reminded of that visit to New York. "I'm planning on being back on that circuit [this week]."

Now that's confidence.

Penske should consider himself officially challenged.

V.W.H. Campbell Jr., Post-Gazette
Chip Ganassi's two drivers -- Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon -- start in the first two rows.
Click photo for larger image.

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