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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

New Audi R18 e-tron quattro unveiled; two cars only for Le Mans

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Audi Sport has revealed its new Audi R18 e-tron quattro, the latest generation of diesel-powered TDI which now will run with a 6 mJ battery hybrid.

The new LMP1 car was unveiled at the annual Audi Sport Finale in Munich, among several other key announcements of note.

Audi will retain its same driver lineup, the lead trio of Andre Lotterer, Benoit Treluyer and Marcel Fassler in one car with Lucas di Grassi, Loic Duval and Oliver Jarvis back as well. After the successive retirements of Tom Kristensen, Allan McNish and Dindo Capello the last three years, Audi now has the same lineup for consecutive years, for the first time in years.

However, and while the third car trio of Filipe Albuquerque, Marco Bonanomi and Rene Rast was on stage with the six others, Audi confirmed both it and sister brand Porsche will run two cars only at next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, rather than three as each did this year.

It was a jointly agreed upon decision; both operate under the VW Group parent company. It effectively rules out the same trio of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg repeating as a trio, although Porsche will announce the program for its own drivers next month.

“We stay with the TDI, 50 percent more hybrid power,” said Chris Reinke, Head of Audi LMP1. “Battery storage and high focus on aero as you can see. We are on our way to challenge for WEC and Le Mans wins.”

Here’s a few photos from the reveal, below:

Ferrari error leaves Vettel 16th on grid for Abu Dhabi GP

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany steers his car during the second practice second at the Yas Marina racetrack in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Friday, Nov. 27, 2015. The Emirates Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Kamran Jerbeili)
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Sebastian Vettel will start tomorrow’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix from 16th place on the grid after a miscalculation on the Ferrari pit wall caused the German to back off during his final Q1 lap.

Vettel aborted his last lap in Q1 after being informed by Ferrari that his time looked good enough to take him into Q2, allowing him to save some life in his super-soft tires.

However, late improvements from Jenson Button and Romain Grosjean caught Ferrari by surprise, leaving Vettel in the dropzone after the checkered flag had fallen.

Having already slowed on his final lap, Vettel was unable to improve his time, making him a shock casualty in Q1 alongside usual suspects Fernando Alonso, Marcus Ericsson, Will Stevens and Roberto Merhi.

“Nothing wrong with the car, we thought that the lap I had on the soft tires was quick enough, but in the end it was not,” Vettel admitted after qualifying.

“There was also a car in front which shouldn’t have been there. So we misjudged the situation, a small mistake with big consequence, but the race is tomorrow and lots can happen.”

Ferrari’s blushes were saved by Kimi Raikkonen, who managed to qualify third behind the two Mercedes drivers, and Vettel is hopeful that he can join his teammate up the order on Sunday.

“It is good that Kimi is in the front, we have a quick car and it is possible to overtake here, even if only tomorrow we’ll be able to tell how much it is,” Vettel said.

“You can spend a lot of time speaking about what we did wrong, but in the end we know, so now we need to move forward.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Alonso cools talk of taking sabbatical from F1

xxxx during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
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Fernando Alonso has cooled speculation suggesting he could take a sabbatical from Formula 1, remaining adamant that he will be on the grid with McLaren in 2016.

Alonso rejoined McLaren for 2015 after a hostile exit from Ferrari, but has struggled to find any kind of form thanks to numerous issues with the Honda power unit used by the team.

After just two top-ten finishes and just 11 points in 2015, speculation has been rife about an early split between Alonso and McLaren as the Spaniard’s frustrations grow.

Time and time again, Alonso has insisted that he will see out his three-year deal with McLaren, but team CEO Ron Dennis hinted on Saturday that a sabbatical could be taken.

“He will definitely finish his career at McLaren,” Dennis said. “I have an open mind to anything, and some of the ideas involved those sorts of considerations: sabbaticals etc.

“When we have to take the decision, we will take it together, and at this moment of time, our drivers for next season are Fernando Alonso and Jenson Button.”

When asked if he intended to compete in F1 next year, Alonso said: “I will, I will.”

The Spaniard went on to say that he did not feel under pressure following Dennis’ comments, and that the team boss should be instead focusing on Honda.

“If he wants to put pressure on someone, I’m sure it’s not me,” Alonso said.

“If it’s someone, it has to be on Honda so they do a good job all winter.”

Alonso’s miserable campaign continued in qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Saturday as he finished 17th thanks to a puncture in Q1.

“Our car has performed better in every session than we initially anticipated,” Alonso said. “So it was cruel luck to get a puncture at possibly the most critical point of the whole weekend, the final run of Q1.

“That was unfortunate, because we’d been looking very competitive, and our car seems to be performing quite well around here.

“The race will be difficult owing to our straight-line speed deficit, but I’ll be aiming to make a good start, run a good strategy, and make up some positions. We’ll see what we can do tomorrow.”

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Perez charges to best F1 qualifying result in Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 28:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India drives during final practice for the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 28, 2015 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg may have taken his sixth pole position of the year in Abu Dhabi, but it was Force India’s Sergio Perez who received most of the plaudits after recording his best Formula 1 qualifying result on Saturday.

Perez displayed a good pace throughout the first two stages of qualifying, finishing third behind the two Mercedes drivers in both Q1 and Q2.

At one point in Q3, the Mexican even briefly threatened to challenge the Silver Arrows for a place on the front row after lapping within one-tenth of a second of Lewis Hamilton on his first run.

Perez could not match their pace on the final laps in Q3, while Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was also able to edge him out by 0.133 seconds to leave the Force India driver fourth.

The result still marks Perez’s best-ever qualifying result, having previously only finished as high as fifth on a Saturday.

Although the Mexican started from P4 in Belgium 2012, Bahrain 2014 and Belgium 2015, he had qualified fifth for all three sessions before gaining a position by virtue of other drivers receiving penalties.

“Fourth place on the grid is a great result for us and I’m very pleased with our strong performance all the way through qualifying,” Perez said.

“We’ve made some good decisions this weekend with the changes we have made to the car and it’s taken us in a very positive direction. I think the analysis we carried out after the weekend in Sao Paulo has really paid off and we’ve learned a huge amount.

“All of my laps this evening were very clean and tidy, and we managed to get the maximum from the car. The challenge tomorrow will be keeping some very quick cars behind me, but I also think we have a good chance to make up some positions at the start.

“I have the confidence in the car to really push and there is definitely the potential to come away with a great result this weekend.

“In many ways it’s a shame that tomorrow is the final race of the season because the car is working very well at the moment and I’m enjoying the racing so much.”

Underpinning Perez’s good pace was teammate Nico Hulkenberg, who qualified seventh in the sister Force India car.

“It was a good qualifying session for the team, although I feel I could have been higher up the grid,” Hulkenberg admitted. “I was pretty happy with my laps, especially the one in Q3, so to find myself in seventh actually feels a little bit disappointing.

“We need to look at the data and figure out where we lost time and what we can do to recover it. Looking ahead to the race, we’ve been working hard to improve our race pace and hopefully the changes we have made will pay off tomorrow.

“The car is quick on the straights and the balance has felt good from the start of the weekend. Starting from the fourth row, we have every opportunity to score a good result tomorrow.”

Force India secured fifth place in the constructors’ championship last time out in Brazil, but will still be gunning to end the year on a high with a strong performance on Sunday in Abu Dhabi.

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is live on NBCSN and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.