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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

IMSA: Mazda’s first pole highlights Continental Tire GP qualifying

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Photo courtesy of IMSA
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There’s a pair of two-hour races for the Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix on Sunday, Round 4 of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season for the Prototype, Prototype Challenge and GT Le Mans classes and Round 3 for GT Daytona.

The P/GTLM race will run first, with the PC/GTD race second. Air times are below, as are the qualifying reports.

P

Mazda Motorsports has done it.

The SpeedSource crew that has worked tirelessly to make the program not just reliable but now competitive has parlayed their practice pace at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca into the pole position for Sunday’s Continental Tire Monterey Grand Prix.

Tristan Nunez led a Mazda Prototype 1-2, in the Mazda MZ-2.0T gasoline powered entry, in the No. 55 car with Tom Long in second in the No. 70 car. Nunez will share his car with Jonathan Bomarito and Long with Joel Miller.

Nunez clocked a 1:18.143 to Long’s 1:18.379 lap.

Nunez’s last pole came Sept. 7, 2013, also at Mazda Raceway, but then in the GRAND-AM Rolex Series in the GX class, in a SpeedSource Mazda 6 diesel.

It’s the first pole for a Mazda-powered prototype since Oct. 4, 2013 at Virginia International Raceway, in the American Le Mans Series, with Dyson Racing and a Lola LMP1 chassis.

A pair of Corvette DPs were third and fourth, the No. 31 Action Express Racing entry qualified by Dane Cameron just ahead of Ricky Taylor in the No. 10 Konica Minolta Wayne Taylor Racing entry. Neither were within striking distance though, at 0.929 and 0.976 of a second back respectively.

The Mazda front row lockout came after a Mazda 1-2 ST sweep by Freedom Autosport as well, when Chad McCumbee and Stevan McAleer beat Andrew Carbonell and Liam Dwyer in a pair of MX-5s in the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge race.

“This is a good start! The car was unbelievable. Huge effort by the guys at SpeedSource. We have a fantastic car. This is one of those moments we’ve all been waiting for here at Mazda, especially at Mazda Raceway. I was pushing my heart out and I wanted that pole,” Nunez told IMSA Radio’s Shea Adam in the immediate aftermath.

GTLM

Ferrari vs. Ford. That just feels good to write.

And for the first time in the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season, that’s what the pole battle was in the GT Le Mans class.

Major credit must go to Giacomo Mattioli’s Scuderia Corsa team – along with Risi Competitizone the only privateer efforts in class – which topped the factory Ford program in the hands of Chip Ganassi Racing, with Multimatic, for the class pole.

Daniel Serra in the No. 68 Ferrari 488 GTE took that new car’s first pole on U.S. soil, as well as the first for Los Angeles-based Scuderia Corsa within GTLM, courtesy of a last-lap flier at 1:22.867 at the 2.238-mile road course.

Serra’s time beat the pair of Ford GTs, the No. 67 car of Ryan Briscoe and No. 66 car of Dirk Mueller, respectively, which clocked their best grid positions this year in second and third at 1:22.946 and 1:23.115.

The No. 4 Corvette C7.R, qualified by Tommy Milner, lines up fourth with Risi’s No. 62 Ferrari in fifth, qualified by Toni Vilander. The best BMW was seventh with the best Porsche in eighth.

Serra will co-drive with Alessandro Pier Guidi, who finished second in the World Challenge race last September in Monterey. Briscoe and Mueller share their cars with Richard Westbrook and Sacramento native Joey Hand, respectively.

Milner and Oliver Gavin – or the No. 3 Corvette C7.R – look to deliver Corvette Racing its 100th win as a team on Sunday, and seek to rebound after the hard-luck, late-race dump the No. 4 car took at Long Beach.

PC

Prototype Challenge had a barnburner of a qualifying session as several drivers exchanged the top spot; ultimately Robert Alon took his first pole in the No. 52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca FLM09 over James French in the No. 38 Performance Tech Motorsports car and Alex Popow in the No. 8 Starworks Motorsport entry.

Alon was due to start first in Long Beach on points, as the session didn’t meet its minimum green flag time. But after causing a yellow flag, that meant he would have his fastest time get deleted.

The Mazda Prototype Lites graduate atoned nicely and was super emotional afterwards in an interview with IMSA Radio. He’ll share the car with Tom Kimber-Smith on Sunday; French co-drives with Kyle Marcelli and Popow with Renger van der Zande.

GTD

The quirks and intricacies of the FIA Driver Ratings system meant four drivers you could reasonably classify as pros, even if their results actually classify them as “ams,” made it into the top six on the grid in the in theory pro-am GT Daytona class.

Again, all credit to the teams who’ve figured out how to master their lineups good to the regs, though.

Alex Riberas was best of the bunch in the No. 23 The Heart of Racing Porsche 911 GT3 R, taking his first class pole on track debut with a best time of 1:25.775. He’ll share his car with Mario Farnbacher; Riberas, the ex-Porsche Junior driver, takes over from Ian James as Farnbacher’s full-season co-driver this weekend.

Christina Nielsen and Patrick Lindsey – two proper Silvers in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari 488 GT3 and No. 73 Park Place Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, respectively – clocked in second and third.

Nielsen and Alessandro Balzan look for their second win in a row this year after winning Sebring while Lindsey and Spencer Pumpelly seek a race repeat after winning here last year.

Cedric Sbirrazzuoli in the No. 27 Dream Racing Lamborghini Huracán GT3, then a pair of unrelated Davises – Brandon in the No. 007 TRG-AMR Aston Martin V12 Vantage GT3 and Andrew in the No. 6 Stevenson Motorsports Audi R8 LMS – completed the top six. Each of these three is a talented pro in their own right.

You could argue Bret Curtis in seventh in the No. 96 Turner Motorsport BMW M6 GT3 is the first true am on the grid, and credit to him for getting the white and black aFe Power car that high up. Dodge was the only manufacturer in class that failed to qualify within the top 10 of the 17-car grid.

TUNE-IN INFO

Tomorrow’s split race times and channels are linked below.

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Tire woes leave Haas down the grid in Russia

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Romain Grosjean of France driving the (8) Haas F1 Team Haas-Ferrari VF-16 Ferrari 059/5 turbo comes back onto the track during qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Tire woes throughout practice and qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix left Haas Formula 1 drivers Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez down the grid ahead of Sunday’s race in Sochi.

NASCAR team co-owner Gene Haas saw his eponymous F1 operation come back down to earth in China two weeks ago when its run of points finishes since debut came to an end.

Grosjean and Gutierrez arrived in Russia hopeful of getting back into the top 10, but both struggled to get temperature into their tires throughout qualifying.

Low temperatures and a green track surface hit all of the teams hard in Sochi, yet Haas seemed more affected than others as Grosjean and Gutierrez qualified 15th and 16th respectively.

“It’s been a complicated weekend so far for us,” Grosjean said. “We’ve been struggling with the grip and the car. It’s difficult to get the tire to work on such a smooth asphalt. We’re progressing, we’re learning and doing the most we can do.

“I still don’t have the feeling I used to have earlier in the season with the car. We really need to analyze that. Then tomorrow’s going to be a long race with a lot of fuel saving. The tires are hard to keep in the window, so it’s going to be challenging for everyone.

“Maybe we can try to be a bit more clever. Let’s do our best, let’s analyse and let’s keep having some interesting data. We’ll see where we are after the race.”

Gutierrez enters Sunday’s race still chasing his first F1 points since the 2013 Japanese Grand Prix, and admitted that Haas needs a few surprises to be in with a chance of reaching the top 10.

“Qualifying was pretty hard. It was difficult to get the tires to work here so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” Gutierrez said.

“I was doing my best, with all the options we have available, to maximize everything but I’m not really satisfied with the result.

“However, we still have a race to do tomorrow. Hopefully a few surprises may come our way that will give us a chance to be up in the points.

“It’s probably not going to be very straightforward, as the pace is not as good as we want it to be, but we will definitely push hard and do our best to get there.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.

Lowe: Mercedes let Hamilton down

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 30: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the garage during final practice ahead of the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 30, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images)
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Mercedes Formula 1 technical chief Paddy Lowe says that the team let Lewis Hamilton down after he suffered a power unit failure for the second race weekend in a row during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Hamilton was forced to start last in China two weeks ago after an issue on his power unit prevented him from posting a time during qualifying.

Although he did take part in both Q1 and Q2 on Saturday in Russia, a repeat of the issue on the same power unit meant that Hamilton could not run in Q3.

As a result, Hamilton will start 10th on the grid for the start in Sochi – and only if Mercedes makes no changes to his car.

While teammate and championship leader Nico Rosberg was able to sweep to pole position, Hamilton was left to prepare for yet another fightback drive on Sunday.

“Our day has been tainted by a failure which deprived Lewis of a shot at pole – and deprived the fans of what would surely have been a thrilling climax to an immensely close battle between our two drivers,” Lowe said after the session.

“We’ve let Lewis down for the second weekend in a row, so our apologies go to him once again. It’s a cruel twist of fate that, out of eight Mercedes-Benz Power Units on the grid, the problem should befall the same driver twice.

“We’ve been working very hard over the past couple of weeks to understand what happened in China – but unfortunately there is clearly still more work to be done.

“Our focus for the immediate future, however, is on making sure Lewis’ car is in the best possible condition for tomorrow’s race to give him the best chance of making the kind of strong recovery we’ve seen him pull off so many times in the past.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC from 7am ET on Sunday.

Hamilton reprimanded for Russia qualifying misdemeanor

SOCHI, RUSSIA - APRIL 29: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Paddock during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on April 29, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton has been given a reprimand by the FIA stewards for failing to follow the race director’s instructions during qualifying for the Russian Grand Prix on Saturday.

Ahead of the weekend at the Sochi Autodrom, FIA race director Charlie Whiting had a white bollard placed in the run-off area at Turn 2 to guide drivers where to go if they ran wide at the corner.

The idea was used successfully in Canada last year, and forces drivers to pass through the ‘penalty zone’ that ensures they do not gain an advantage by running wide.

During Q1, Hamilton ran wide at Turn 2 but failed to pass to the left of the bollard. Although he did not gain an advantage or improve his lap time, the stewards still opted to look into his misdemeanor after qualifying.

Late on Saturday, they confirmed that Hamilton had been handed a reprimand for the incident, marking his second of the season. If he racks up one more, he will receive a 10-place grid penalty.

Hamilton ultimately finished 10th in qualifying after an issue on his power unit prevented him from taking part in Q3.

“It’s obviously not a great feeling to be on the sidelines again – but that’s life,” Hamilton said. “I knew there was a problem and that it was probably the same failure that I had in China pretty much straight away. I went out for a second run in Q2 to get a feeler lap and felt the same power loss as last time.

“When it happened in Shanghai it was something we hadn’t seen before and now unfortunately it’s happened again, so we need to understand it. I’ve never been superstitious about these things, though, and I never will be. There’s nothing I can do about it, so I’ll move on and look ahead to the race.”

Hamilton said that Mercedes was yet to decide whether or not it would make any changes to his power unit overnight that may result in him receiving another penalty.

“I don’t know where I’m going to start yet – we’ll wait to see how that unfolds,” Hamilton said.

“But I never give up and I’ll give it all I’ve got to recover whatever I can in the race, like always. It’s not an easy track for overtaking. With the levels of tire degradation and it being so tough to follow here, it’s not going to be easy to make my way forward.

“But there are long straights and we’ve got good pace, so if I can keep the car in one piece I’ll be fighting for decent points I’m sure.”

The Russian Grand Prix is live on CNBC and Live Extra from 7am ET on Sunday.