Sam Hornish Jr. celebrates Sunday's win at Iowa Speedway. (Photo: AP/Charlie Neibergall)

McMurray, Hornish wins prove nice guys do finish first


Saturday night’s Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Sunday afternoon’s Nationwide Series’ Get to Know Newton 250 at Iowa Speedway will go down in history as two of the best feel-good stories of 2014.

Two of the nicest and most respected drivers in the sport — Sprint Cup’s Jamie McMurray and former Cup-turned-NNS driver Sam Hornish Jr. — went to victory lane. McMurray earned a cool million bucks in the All-Star race, while Hornish won in what was the second of what will be just seven NNS starts this season for his new team, Joe Gibbs Racing.

Admittedly, it’s not been easy on either driver in recent years. McMurray has particularly struggled this season, with just two top-10 finishes in the first 11 points-paying races, leaving him in 24th place in the Sprint Cup standings heading into this Sunday’s longest and most grueling race of the season, the 600-mile Coca-Cola 600 at CMS.

If there’s a tinge of sadness about McMurray’s win Saturday is that it didn’t count in the standings. If it had, he’d be that much closer to qualifying for this year’s expanded and revised format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

But at the same time, McMurray’s win showed himself, his team and the rest of the Sprint Cup Series that he can not only win, but that Saturday’s triumph — even though he didn’t earn any points — could very well wind up being the linchpin to start turning his season around.

Although we’re talking apples to oranges — 90 laps in the All-Star Race vs. 400 at Charlotte — McMurray most definitely can ride the momentum and confidence gained from his All-Star triumph to reinvigorate the entire No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing team going forward.

Hornish, on the other hand, is in a different situation but can still prosper from the confidence and motivation earned in Sunday’s win. After his split with long-time team owner Roger Penske at the end of last season — basically being replaced by the young driver who finished runner-up to him Sunday, Ryan Blaney — Hornish caught on with Joe Gibbs Racing.

It wasn’t a full-time ride, but at the same time it was a ride nonetheless. Sure, it was only for seven races, and Hornish was indeed thankful and grateful for it, but at the same time it was an opportunity to build something at JGR.

That’s exactly what Hornish has done. In just two of seven scheduled starts in the No. 54 Toyota Camry, he has a pole and fifth-place finish at Talladega two weeks ago, followed up in a big way with his win Sunday at Iowa.

McMurray and Hornish have had a rough go of it in their respective careers.

For example, McMurray had a dream season in 2010, starting with a win in the Daytona 500, added a triumph in the Brickyard 400 and yet still fell short of making the Chase that season. A bit of consolation came in his win that fall in the 500-mile race at Charlotte, but he still finished 14th overall in the final season standings.

In fact, McMurray has never, ever qualified for the Chase.

But a win like Saturday’s could help him change that.

As for Hornish, he was the good soldier at Penske Racing for several years, competing in both the Nationwide and Cup series. But for a variety of reasons — some sponsorship-based, others performance-based — Hornish never seemed to get the breaks or chances that former teammates Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano did.

When it appeared he’d never get any further at Team Penske, Hornish moved to JGR, taking whatever opportunity he could — but with the hope that it would eventually pay off either as a full-time NNS ride or maybe even move into the long-rumored fourth Sprint Cup team (that is, provided Carl Edwards doesn’t jump ship and move into that fourth ride after this season).

Joe and J.D. Gibbs knew Hornish could drive. After all, he was a former Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar series champion.

And while Hornish’s decision to leave Penske came at a point when most other seats for 2014 rides were already full, to the Gibbs’ credit they still managed to find a home for the Ohio native.

It’s been a new start and a whole new way of doing things than what Hornish was used to at Team Penske, but he seems to have adapted quite well already to his new team and new surroundings.

Yes, what happened this weekend couldn’t have happened to two better and nicer guys. You could tell how appreciative they both were to see the end result of all their hard work wind up with a checkered flag. They most certainly didn’t take for granted reaching victory lane, unlike some drivers who win an inordinate number of races, yet never seem as sincere or take the wins as meaningful as guys like McMurray and Hornish did this weekend.

Given some of the adversity both McMurray and Hornish have gone through in their careers, maybe it’s not too late for them to finally get their just rewards and even greater success that they’ve worked so hard to attain. It truly couldn’t happen to a nicer pair of guys.

IndyCar 2015 Driver Review: Graham Rahal

Graham Rahal
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MotorSportsTalk continues its driver-by-driver review of the field in the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series.

Next up is fourth-placed Graham Rahal, who had a career year.

Graham Rahal, No. 15 Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing Honda

  • 2014: 19th Place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 4th, 1 Podium, 2 Top-5, 4 Top-10s, 28 Laps Led, 14.4 Avg. Start, 15.0 Avg. Finish
  • 2015: 4th Place, 2 Wins, Best Start 5th, 6 Podiums, 8 Top-5, 10 Top-10s, 76 Laps Led, 11.0 Avg Start, 8.5 Avg. Finish

Formula 1 fans will remember the miraculous, shock rise of Brawn GP, which didn’t even exist as a team until mere weeks before the 2009 Australian Grand Prix having risen from the demise of the former Honda factory team, and then promptly proceeded to stomp the field en route to winning both the Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that season.

It’s the best racing comparison in recent years – or perhaps any year – for what was done at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in 2015, courtesy of a career year from Graham Rahal, an instant chemistry renewal with the people father Bobby put in place, and the fact Bobby himself stepped back this year to allow his team’s key players to shine through.

Because quite simply, after finishes of 18th and 19th the last two seasons, no one in their right mind had Rahal winning races and contending for a championship this season.

It’s hard to say specifically which point was most important, because all played dividends. Bobby Rahal moved off the pit box, and actually missed a fair number of races this year, which allowed Graham and team manager Ricardo Nault to gel with Nault on the radio and pretty much running the team on the whole. Then there were the three key crewmember additions: Eddie Jones moving over to be lead engineer on the No. 15 car was clutch, as was Rahal getting the opportunity to reunite with Martin Pare and work for the first time with Mike Talbott. The addition of damper ace Stuart Kenworthy was not covered much this year, but undoubtedly a big help. Sponsor Steak ‘n Shake’s arrival also brought a wealth of attention.

And then there were the drives in the races themselves. Perhaps strangely, Rahal had a tough qualifying average – only 11th – but it was the best for a Honda driver this year. The strategy calls from RLL were damn near perfect all year and Rahal seized every opportunity at his disposal, be it his wins at Fontana and Mid-Ohio, his recovery at Iowa, and his numerous other podiums throughout the year. His charge to second at Barber stands out as one of the drives of the year.

Call Fontana lucky if you will, and he was fortunate to avoid a penalty for leaving with the fuel buckeye, but even so he still could have come back given where the race was at that point. And being on the receiving end of two ill-advised taps from Tristan Vautier and Sebastien Bourdais at Pocono and Sonoma, respectively, cost him huge results and huge points – the net effect of three races.

The single-car title charge was one of the stories of the year, even beyond Scott Dixon’s championship comeback and Juan Pablo Montoya’s consistent-until-Sonoma season. Rahal re-established his credentials on track if people had forgotten what he was capable of; additionally, he reaffirmed his status as one of racing’s best people with his work in the Justin Wilson memorial auction after that tragedy. It was truly a ’15 to remember for the driver of the No. 15 car.

Nick Tandy is on a ridiculous roll of form of late

Tandy (second from left) is on a roll. Photo: Getty Images
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With the international sports car season nearing its conclusion after a few more FIA World Endurance Championship and other international GT championship events, the question begins to be asked who might be the driver of the year.

There’s a British driver who’s pretty much firmly got that title wrapped at the moment – Nick Tandy – even though the nature of his season means he is unlikely to capture any championship on his own!

Tandy has competed in the full FIA World Endurance Championship season, splitting his time between the LMP2 class Oreca 05 Nissan from KCMG and a third Porsche 919 Hybrid in LMP1, which he drove at Spa and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Though Nico Hulkenberg got many non-insider accolades for his drive at Le Mans, it was truly Tandy’s overnight stint, coupled with regular fellow factory Porsche pilot Earl Bamber, that won the race for the No. 19 Porsche.

That win for Tandy has kicked off a ridiculous run of form, culminating with his shock – but thoroughly well-deserved – overall win Saturday night at Petit Le Mans powered by Mazda, co-driving the No. 911 Porsche 911 RSR with Patrick Pilet (Richard Lietz, the designated third driver, did not drive).

Tandy won three consecutive GT Le Mans class races at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, Road America and Virginia International Raceway.

A week after VIR, Tandy was back at KCMG for the first time since Silverstone in April and co-drove to victory in the LMP2 class at the Nürburgring.

After a relatively “rough” month of September where Tandy and Pilet needed a late splash of fuel to make the finish and lost a shot at a fourth straight GTLM class win, they rebounded this weekend at Petit Le Mans.

“The fact that we were a lot of time the fastest cars on track, so by racing against each other, naturally we had to race against the prototypes. So when they were in our way we had to race against us,” Tandy explained post-race at Petit Le Mans of his drive against, and past, the prototypes.

“When the race was coming to a close, I was aware that the 31 car was in the lead, but I knew if we had another rain shower I knew we would checker the race, so that was why I was pushing so hard to get ahead of the GTLM cars, and once I had done that and we had a really good pace and were comfortable we were catching the 31.

“It was a case of just pulling ahead of the rest, but we ended up winning overall, so it was fantastic. [opening] “The opening stint opened our eyes to the fact that we could actually be fighting for the overall victory, the fact we came from the back of the field to I think we were running second on pure pace.

“To be honest, the first 2 hours were the best conditions we had. We had consistent rain, but very little running water. Clearly towards the end, it dried out a little more and our pace compared to the other classes and the BMW and Corvettes came back. It was a race of two halves really.”