Indiana 250 - Practice

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

Rosberg takes Belgian GP pole, Verstappen scores first front-row start

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany driving the (6) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes F1 WO7 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo  on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Nico Rosberg will start the Belgian Grand Prix from pole position after dominating qualifying at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on Saturday afternoon.

With Mercedes teammate and Formula 1 drivers’ championship leader Lewis Hamilton dropping out in Q1 as a tactical move due to his grid penalty, Rosberg was left largely unchallenged in the battle for pole.

Red Bull and Ferrari showed glimmers of pace in practice, but when it came to qualifying, Rosberg was able to turn up the wick and continue Mercedes’ pole streak dating back to the Monaco Grand Prix.

Despite failing to improve with his final flying lap in Q3, a fastest time of 1:46.744 saw Rosberg take pole by 0.149 seconds ahead of Verstappen in P2.

Verstappen was the only driver to really push Rosberg, and although he was also unable to improve on his final effort, second place marked his best F1 qualifying result to date. He also becomes the youngest ever driver to start on the front row of the grid in F1.

Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen qualified third for Ferrari, edging out Sebastian Vettel in P4. Daniel Ricciardo was fifth in the second Red Bull, finishing over three-tenths off Verstappen’s pace.

Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg qualified sixth and seventh for Force India ahead of Valtteri Bottas in P8, while Jenson Button and Felipe Massa rounded out the top 10, finishing over a second off Rosberg’s pole time.

Haas enjoyed a somewhat routine qualifying as Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez both reached Q2 for the eighth race in a row. Grosjean qualified 11th with Gutierrez two places behind in 13th. Gutierrez will drop five places on the grid for blocking a driver in practice.

Kevin Magnussen led Renault’s charge in P12, while teammate Jolyon Palmer enjoyed his best qualifying of the year to finish 14th ahead of Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr.

Manor also produced a strong display in qualifying as Pascal Wehrlein reached Q2, finishing ninth in the opening session. The German ultimately finished 16th, with teammate Esteban Ocon finishing P18 in his first F1 qualifying outing.

The impact of Sauber’s car updates for Belgium were evident in Q1 as Felipe Nasr finished within one-tenth of a place in Q2. The Brazilian was left to settle for P17 on the grid, with teammate Marcus Ericsson in 20th. Daniil Kvyat’s ongoing struggles continued as he qualified 19th for Toro Rosso, finishing behind Ocon by 0.008 seconds.

With a 55-place grid penalty looming for a series of power unit changes, Mercedes opted to limit Lewis Hamilton’s qualifying program as much as possible. The Briton posted a time quick enough to qualify for the race, good enough for 21st place.

“This is the best strategic approach in order to maximize his opportunities from the back of the field tomorrow, in terms of new tire sets,” Mercedes confirmed.

Hamilton finished ahead only of Fernando Alonso, who was unable to post a time after coming to a stop at the top of Eau Rouge. The McLaren driver also has a sizeable grid penalty to take into Sunday’s race.

The Belgian Grand Prix is live on NBCSN from 7am ET on Sunday.

Simon Pagenaud: IndyCar’s one-day return to Texas is ‘weird’

Simon Pagenaud
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FORT WORTH – Yes, it’s absurd.

Simon Pagenaud is still answering questions about the Firestone 600.

That’s what happens when you start a race on June 12 (and meant to start June 11) and never finished it.

Throw in a few torrential downpours, a lack of communication between Texas Motor Speedway and IndyCar, and you have the series returning to Fort Worth, Texas, today. That’s 77 days later that the green flag will drop to finish the last 177 laps of the race.

Pagenaud, who will restart 15th, can’t do anything but laugh at the situation.

“It’s weird, the whole team is only showing up tomorrow and we’re going to have 10 minutes of practice and then race,” Pagenaud told NBC Sports in a phone interview. “It’s going to be a short weekend. Obviously, it’s going to be a pretty short race. It’s going to be a sprint.”

MORE: McFadin column: At least IndyCar is coming back for this Firestone 600

The series completed 71 laps in June before the rain sent teams scrambling for cover in the garage and then away from TMS. They went on to compete in five races before today, with Pagenaud keeping hold of his points leads. That’s after his Team Penske teammate Will Power won three of those races and Pagenaud wrecked at Pocono.

And yes, the remaining 20 cars in the field will be given just 20 minutes to practice Saturday evening – 10 minutes for the front half of the field, 10 minutes for the back half.

After a 77 day red flag, you have to get down to business.

“I don’t know if that’s an advantage or a disadvantage,” Pagenaud said. “We don’t have any time to change anything. They impound the cars pretty quickly after practice, so you don’t get to do anything on the cars. It’s really a driving exercise and nothing else.”

And they’ll be racing at night, with a scheduled green flag just after 8:15 p.m. ET. In June, teams practiced in the mid to late afternoon with the intent to race under the lights.

Then it rained. The green flag dropped well after 2 p.m. CT the next day. Now IndyCar will race in the conditions they originally intended – more or less.

“Because we didn’t practice to race at night, the behavior of the car is going to be different, but we have enough data from years past to know which way it’s going to go and how to balance the car. It’s definitely going to be a bit of a guess,” Pagenaud said. “The best engineer-driver combination should win the race. ”

Through 13 and half races this season, the best combination has been on Pagenaud’s No. 22 car. The Frenchman has four wins and seven poles. Entering 2016, he had only two poles in his previous five seasons.

At Texas, Pagenaud has only one top five (fourth, 2014).

Tonight, Pagenaud (should) get to finish his fifth Texas race and the points leader thinks the two month wait to finish the Firestone 600 will be worth it.

“We might have more edgy cars than during the day,” Pagenaud said. “It’s just something we’ve seen throughout the years. The track just changes when the sun goes down. I think it’s better for the fans. It’s a better show.”

After a record-setting intermission, the show must go on.

Perez: Sponsors yet to make decision on F1 future

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27:  Sergio Perez of Mexico and Force India walks in the Paddock before final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Sergio Perez has confirmed that his sponsors are yet to make a decision about his Formula 1 future as speculation about a move away from Force India persists.

Force India team owner Vijay Mallya said over the British Grand Prix weekend that both Perez and teammate Nico Hulkenberg were under contract for 2017.

However, Perez revealed that although this was correct, his Mexican sponsors were yet to decide whether or not to continue with Force India, the understanding being that his contract has an escape clause.

Perez previously said his sponsors would make a decision on his future over the summer break, but explained in Spa on Thursday that nothing has been firmed up.

“They’ve decided nothing yet. I hope in the next couple of months, we can announce where I’m heading or what I’m doing with my future,” Perez told NBCSN.

“I’m not stressed about it. I know whatever happens, that will be the best for my future. I will give my best. Right now I want to focus on Spa, enjoy the present and try to close up the gap to Williams and beat Williams.”

Perez stressed that he is happy at Force India despite being linked with moves to Renault and Williams.

“I’ve always said that I’m very happy here in the team. I’ve had a tremendous three years here, a lot of enjoyment,” Perez said.

“I think it’s a very key part of the decision that wherever you are that you enjoy what you’re doing, you have fun and you like the people, and here I enjoy it a lot.

“We’ll see what happens obviously. The decision is not fully on my side but we’ll see.”

Raikkonen quickest, Mercedes struggles in final Belgian GP practice

SPA, BELGIUM - AUGUST 27: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF16-H Ferrari 059/5 turbo (Shell GP) on track during final practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 27, 2016 in Spa, Belgium.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Four-time Belgian Grand Prix winner Kimi Raikkonen offered a glimpse of his affinty for the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps by leading the final Formula 1 practice session on Saturday morning ahead of qualifying.

After seeing Nico Rosberg and Max Verstappen share the practice spoils on Friday, Raikkonen hit back with a fastest lap of 1:47.974 to finish two-tenths of a second clear of Daniel Ricciardo.

Red Bull driver Ricciardo led for much of the session after completing his super-soft run early on, but still finishing ahead of Sebastian Vettel in the second Ferrari.

Valtteri Bottas finished the session fourth for Williams ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who could only go P5 with a late lap in FP3 after a mistake at the final chicane. Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg could only finish P7 as Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg split the pair. Felipe Massa was eighth for Williams ahead of Sergio Perez and Romain Grosjean.

Verstappen completed just two laps for Red Bull before being forced to sit out the remainder of the session due to a gearbox sensor issue. Marcus Ericsson could only manage five laps before a problem on his Sauber curtailed his running.

FP3 also saw a couple of near-misses between drivers on-track. Pascal Wehrlein was left fuming after being blocked by Esteban Gutierrez on the Kemmel Straight, while Vettel was less than impressed after a close run with Kevin Magnussen, saying over the radio: “It’s free practice, who gives a s**t?”

Qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix is live on the NBC Sports app from 8am ET on Saturday.