Sam Hornish Jr. looks forward to new start with Joe Gibbs Racing

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After battling Austin Dillon for last season’s Nationwide Series championship, Sam Hornish Jr. ultimately fell short by a mere three points.

Dillon won the title and got a promotion to Sprint Cup for 2014.

Hornish, however, was essentially laid-off from Penske Racing when enough sponsorship dollars couldn’t be found to keep his NNS team going for 2014.

But rather than mope or throw a pity party, the 34-year-old Hornish will indeed be racing in 2014, driving in at least seven NNS races as he and Kyle Busch team up to share a ride in the Joe Gibbs Racing-owned No. 54 NNS Toyota.

It’s not a full-time ride, but Hornish feels fortunate he has another job and he’s still racing.

Even with the departure from the Penske organization after a decade-long association that included one of his three IndyCar championships and a victory in the 2006 Indianapolis 500, Hornish holds no grudges – even though some uninformed critics felt otherwise.

“Cleaning up my office (at Penske Racing) and packing up all the stuff, it felt weird,” Hornish told MotorSportsTalk. “There were some people that expressed a little bit of bitterness towards me about it, but I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t quit. I didn’t have a job anymore. What do you want me to do?’

“It’s just like anything else in life, you’re never going to make everybody happy. I’m proud of the decade-long relationship with Penske Racing and Roger, and I hope that no matter what happens throughout as the future goes, I can always say that not only was he my boss but he was my friend as well.”

While Hornish could have stayed on with Penske in a different capacity, perhaps as a test driver or another role, when the JGR offer came up, he had to take it.

“I told Roger from the get-go that I was going to do this,” Hornish said. “I told him, ‘I hope you understand where I’m at and all those things.’ After we had an opportunity to talk about it, I feel like he felt much better about it.”

While this will essentially put him back to square one by racing a part-time schedule, Hornish is okay with that. The key is just to be back behind the wheel.

He also hasn’t given up on his hopes to return to a full-time ride in Sprint Cup some day.

“I want to be successful and I want to run up towards the front of no matter what I do,” he said. “I’m really excited to get into a JGR car, starting out on the Nationwide side.

“I want to go Cup racing in the future, but I’m only going to do that if I think that it’s with an organization I can run in the top-15 regularly. That means I want to do it with someone I can hopefully get into the Chase with. There are a lot of things that can bias that, but I know that being with an organization like JGR that has great sponsors that tend to be on the car year in and year out, to be with a company like Monster Energy and what they’re brand is … this is the right place for me.”

Hornish will start with seven races in the No. 54 Toyota and see where things go. His first race tentatively isn’t until April 25 at Richmond.

Even though that may seem like a long time, Hornish looks on the bright side. When asked about how he thinks NASCAR’s new qualifying format will play out, Hornish said with a laugh, “The great part about my job is this year is I’ve got eight weeks to watch everybody else do it and screw it up, and hopefully I’ll get it right.”

Until then, he’ll continue to immerse himself in the JGR culture and way of doing things, while also enjoying the latest addition to his family. After two daughters, Hornish and wife Crystal welcomed son Samuel III into the world on Feb. 8.

With Juan Pablo Montoya’s decision to return to Indy cars after a seven-season stint in NASCAR, as well as Cup drivers Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger planning to compete in this year’s Indianapolis 500, Hornish was asked whether he’d ever consider going back to the open-wheel world.

After all, he experienced a much greater level of success in sleek Indy cars – three championships and a win in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 – than he has in NASCAR stock car racing.

Hornish quickly downplays the possibility.

“The last time I had serious thoughts about it was in 2011,” Hornish said. “That ended after about the fifth lap at the Las Vegas race (when his friend Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific wreck) and I haven’t thought much about it since then.”

Plus, there’d be very little to gain for Hornish to return to IndyCar.

“I feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to over there,” Hornish said. “There was a reason I left. The reason wasn’t monetary, it was a challenge (in NASCAR). Yeah, there might be more of a challenge going back there now because I’ve been out of it for seven years.

“I just feel like what would be the point to where you could possibly tarnish a career that you won in almost 20 percent of the events you ran and won half the full-time championships that you ran when you focused on it.

“And then you look at the safety fact of it, too. I got a lot of people that I need to take care of in my life, and racing in general for me is probably a little bit of a selfish thing because I probably don’t need to do it, but I want to. So, I have to sit back and think about as far as my family life goes, everything worked out exactly the way it needed to for this year.”

There’s one other thing, as well.

Even when he was tearing up the IndyCar circuit, Hornish admits he never felt he got the respect he deserved.

“When I started racing over there, (people said) ‘You’re not good enough.’ When I won the championship (people said), ‘You didn’t have any competition. Wait till Penske comes along.’ You went with Penske (and people said), ‘Well, that wasn’t enough competition, wait for Ganassi.’ Okay, you almost won again, now it’s about the road courses. Okay, you won a championship with the road courses and you won the Indy 500, now what’s the challenge anymore?”

In a sense, Hornish has found a sense of peace in NASCAR that he didn’t have in Indy cars. And now with the new opportunity with JGR, there’s no looking back or lamenting on what was or what might have been.

“After everything gets calmed down for a couple months, I’m going to go racing,” he said. “It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s all happening kind of for the right reason.

“Call it divine intervention or just the way things worked out, or maybe in my mind I worked things to be able to get myself into this position. I want to be out there racing more, but I’m okay with where I’m at, too.”

Follow me @JerryBonkowski

Max Chilton tops frenetic Monday race practice for Indy 500

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INDIANAPOLIS – Two relatively under-the-radar but improving young drivers, Max Chilton and Ed Jones, ended 1-2 in the final long practice session for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

The Englishman in the No. 8 Gallagher Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing posted a best speed of 228.592 mph with Jones, the Dubai-based Brit in the No. 19 Boy Scouts of America Honda, in at 228.116 mph for Dale Coyne Racing.

These speeds were set earlier in the running, a three-and-a-half hour session from 12:30 to 4 p.m. ET, with significant tows. The turbocharger boost has been turned back down to race levels after being brought up for “Fast Friday” practice and qualifying over the last three days.

One-lap speed was not as outright important as consistent running over the length of stints, your car’s ability to carve through traffic, or managing falloff on tires.

Lap count is also something to look for on a day like this, and in the time on track there were a whopping 2,705 laps turned between all 33 drivers in a heavy day of running that clearly simulated a race. Seven yellows for more than 50 minutes prevented that number from surpassing 3,000.

Some of the heaviest runners included:

  • Helio Castroneves (121), Juan Pablo Montoya (55), Will Power (109), Josef Newgarden (99) and Simon Pagenaud (95) combined to give Team Penske 479 laps on the day.
  • Fernando Alonso topped 100 laps in the No. 29 McLaren Honda Andretti entry, with 122 laps run.
  • Jack Harvey also went over 100 in the No. 50 Michael Shank Racing with Andretti Autosport Honda, at 124 laps done, most of all. Harvey led the no-tow speed charts at 224.036 mph.
  • Charlie Kimball posted 119 laps in the No. 83 Tresiba Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing, and Chilton did 108.
  • As a whole, Andretti’s six-pack of drivers turned in 523 laps while Ganassi’s four completed 408.

There were a number of hairy moments throughout the day as drivers ran in packs of about 10 or 12 cars or more. Race speeds were anywhere in the 215 to 223 or 224 mph ballpark.

James Davison made his first running in the No. 18 GEICO Honda for Dale Coyne Racing. Davison had a half hour to get up to speed for his first laps in an IndyCar in two years on his own, and made more than 20 laps, before joining the rest of the field from 12:30 p.m. ET. His best speed on the day was after 88 total laps.

Oriol Servia sustained another Honda engine failure when coming out of Turn 4, with a significant plume of smoke emerging from the back of his No. 16 Manitowoc Honda for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. That ended his session early.

Speeds are below.

2006 MotoGP champion Nicky Hayden dies at 35

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2006 MotoGP champion and American World Superbike Championship rider Nicky Hayden has died at the age of 35 from injuries sustained in a road accident last week.

Hayden was struck by a car while out cycling in the Rimini region of Italy, leaving him in a critical condition after suffering trauma to his chest and head, the latter resulting in serious brain damage.

On Monday, the Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena confirmed through a medical bulletin that Hayden had died as a result of his injuries.

“It is with great sadness that Red Bull Honda World Superbike Team has to announce that Nicky Hayden has succumbed to injuries suffered during an incident while riding his bicycle last Wednesday,” Hayden’s WSBK team said in a subsequent statement.

“Nicky passed away at 19:09 CEST this evening at Maurizio Bufalini Hospital in Cesena, Italy. His fiancée Jackie, mother Rose and brother Tommy were at his side.”

“On behalf of the whole Hayden family and Nicky’s fiancée Jackie I would like to thank everyone for their messages of support – it has been a great comfort to us all knowing that Nicky has touched so many people’s lives in such a positive way,” Tommy Hayden said.

“Although this is obviously a sad time, we would like everyone to remember Nicky at his happiest – riding a motorcycle.

“He dreamed as a kid of being a pro rider and not only achieved that but also managed to reach the pinnacle of his chosen sport in becoming World Champion. We are all so proud of that.

“Apart from these ‘public’ memories, we will also have many great and happy memories of Nicky at home in Kentucky, in the heart of the family. We will all miss him terribly.

“It is also important for us to thank all the hospital staff for their incredible support – they have been very kind. With the further support of the authorities in the coming days we hope to have Nicky home soon.”

Known as the ‘Kentucky Kid’, Hayden made his way up the American motorcycle racing ladder around the turn of the millennium, culminating with victory in the AMA Superbike championship in 2002.

Hayden moved into MotoGP, the world’s premier class of motorcycle racing, for 2003 with Honda, and finished his rookie season fifth in the championship.

Hayden scored his first win in 2005 before taking the championship one year later, picking up two victories on the way as he edged out Valentino Rossi in a final-race showdown.

Remaining with Honda until the end of 2008, Hayden then moved to Ducati where he spent five seasons, recording a best championship finish of seventh in 2010.

Hayden rekindled his partnership with Honda in 2014, racing with the satellite Aspar team for two seasons before then enjoying two one-off run-outs in 2016, a year in which he was focused on commitments in the World Superbike Championship.

Hayden took his first WSBK victory in Malaysia last year, finishing fifth in the final standings, and was 10 races into the 2017 campaign prior to the cycling accident.

Dixon, Franchitti OK after robbing at gunpoint at Indy Taco Bell

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INDIANAPOLIS – According to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department police report, Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti were robbed at gunpoint at an Indianapolis Taco Bell on Sunday night.

A team spokesperson confirmed the incident to NBC Sports and that both drivers – Dixon, the leading active driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series and Franchitti, a four-time series champion and three-time Indianapolis 500 winner – were OK, but would decline comment.

Dixon, who won the pole for next Sunday’s 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil, and Franchitti were at a Taco Bell, located at 3502 W. 16th St., around 10 p.m. on Sunday night.

According to FOX 59 in Indianapolis, which reported the story via reporter Russ McQuaid and online, here, Dixon and Franchitti were in the drive-through lane there – being robbed before the suspects allegedly fled, and were arrested as of Monday morning.

“The victims stated 2 (black males) robbed them at gunpoint and fled north on Berwick (Avenue) on foot,” the police report stated.

Dixon, who along with wife Emma and their two daughters, Poppy and Tilly were present in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway press conference earlier Sunday afternoon, live in Indianapolis.

Dixon’s teammate, Tony Kanaan, spoke to Indianapolis TV stations WTHR (Indianapolis NBC affiliate) and WISH-TV on Monday morning from IMS. Video of that is linked below via the Indianapolis Star’s Brody Miller.

Kanaan led off the interview saying, “I was supposed to be with them. I’m from Brazil, so I’m a little bit more accustomed to this stuff (laughter). I’m glad they’re OK, and now I can make fun of them.”

Scott Dixon didn’t post anything on Twitter about his pole run on Sunday until earlier this morning. This report would seem to indicate that he had bigger things on his mind.

Chip Ganassi, meanwhile added in a joke about Taco Bell sponsorship.

Button: Monaco return feels ‘slightly surreal’

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Jenson Button hasn’t yet sat or tested the McLaren Honda he’ll be racing this weekend. But when you’re a past Formula 1 World Champion and Monaco Grand Prix winner (Sunday, 7:30 a.m. ET, NBC), as Button is, you should be able to adapt pretty quickly.

Button, who won both titles during the 2009 season, will make his first and thus far only planned start of 2017 this weekend as stand-in for Fernando Alonso, who’s hogged the headlines and embraced the challenge of his maiden run in the 101st Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.

With Monaco offering a good chance to score points for McLaren – it’s not power-dependent – Button is keeping expectations low up front as he prepares for his comeback.

“It feels slightly surreal to be back in the cockpit for the Monaco Grand Prix. When the call came from Eric there was no hesitation – it’s a totally unique situation and a great opportunity. I’m looking forward to stepping back behind the wheel for one of the most crazy, unpredictable and exciting races of the year,” he said in the team’s advance release.

“Monaco is truly unique as a track, and requires a lot of work to fine-tune the car and optimize the set-up for the narrow layout. It’s always a challenge – a huge challenge, for any driver – but a really exciting challenge, and has always been up there in my favorite races of the year.”

Button said he’s focused and prepared for the drive, for what will be his 306th career Grand Prix start – one which would draw him level with Michael Schumacher for second on Formula 1’s all-time start list. Button’s old teammate, Rubens Barrichello, holds that mark with 322 starts in 326 Grand Prix weekends.

“Although I haven’t turned a wheel on track yet in the MCL32, I feel well prepared,” he said.

“I know the track well, of course, and I’ve done quite a bit of work in the McLaren simulator already. I’m still fit, and I’ve been training probably more than ever, because I’ve had the time to focus on my triathlon preparation and competitions.

“I’m looking forward to working with the team again, and, as I’ll be on the other side of the garage this time around, I’ll do my best to look after the car for Fernando!”

McLaren Honda racing director Eric Boullier, who has been in Indianapolis with Alonso this week, said Button is up to the task.

“In the famous Monaco paddock, we welcome the return of Jenson, who we are all looking forward to working with again, and who is already doing a sterling job deputizing for Fernando, having already completed stints in our simulator in preparation,” he said.

Button’s story has, of course, generated some discussion. Mark Webber didn’t rate it a particularly big deal while Romain Grosjean said he does not expect Button to struggle.

Coverage for the Monaco Grand Prix begins on Thursday with free practice one coverage online at 4 a.m. ET, then free practice two live on NBCSN at 8 a.m. ET.