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.

Hamilton would take F1 title defeat to Rosberg ‘like a man’

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP in the Drivers Press Conference during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton says he would take a potential Formula 1 championship defeat to Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg “like a man” should the German win the title in 2016.

Hamilton enters this weekend’s United States Grand Prix trailing Rosberg by 33 points in the drivers’ standings with four rounds remaining this season.

Rosberg is chasing his maiden F1 title in 2016, having been the runner-up behind Hamilton for the past two years, and is now in a position where four second-place finishes would be enough to clinch him the championship.

With title permutations already being worked out, Hamilton was asked in Thursday’s press conference in Austin how he would react to Rosberg winning the championship.

“Try to take it like a man. You can’t win them all,” Hamilton said.

“Look at all the world champions in the past who’ve won championships and lost championships – it is part of the game.

“I am in the position right now where there are still a lot of points available so I’m going to give it everything I’ve got and still have the belief that anything is possible – but then I’ll move on.

“Once it’s decided and it happens, all I can do about it is shape the future, which is the next year. So, life will move on, we’ll go into next season and hopefully come back stronger.”

Hamilton was forced to miss a Pirelli tire test in Barcelona last week due to a minor foot injury, but the Briton said he is now back to full fitness ahead of the race in Austin.

“I am 100 per cent, yeah, feeling great,” Hamilton said.

“I basically had an injury that I’ve been carrying generally all year long, in both feet. Just induced by running. Unfortunately the physio said that it just takes a lot of stretching and it just heals over a long time.

“At the time I woke up in the morning, I was feeling quite a lot of pain the day before, and it hadn’t diminished.

“The most important thing was to be fresh for here and feeling better for here. This is actually the first week that it’s felt good.”

Ricciardo on Webber: “He was a helping hand when I needed it”

during the Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix at Bahrain International Circuit on April 3, 2016 in Sakhir, Bahrain.
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AUSTIN – Daniel Ricciardo has hailed his Australian countryman Mark Webber, after Webber announced just prior to last week’s FIA World Endurance Championship Six Hours of Fuji that he would retire at year’s end.

The two’s Formula 1 careers overlapped for only three seasons, from 2011 to 2013, before Ricciardo stepped up to Red Bull Racing in 2014 to replace Webber after he departed for the Porsche LMP1 program in the FIA WEC.

Webber, now 40, helped the 27-year-old Ricciardo throughout his career, and Ricciardo took the time to praise his countryman.

Not without adding his trademark sense of humor, first.

“Well, that Maaahhhk Webbaahhh,” Ricciardo said to lead it off.

“But yeah, it’s been an interesting career. Obviously, he’s had a pretty successful second period of his racing career post-F1. And I think he’s done well. So he was able to achieve that. He’s going to retire with a lot of happiness and comfort.”

Ricciardo said Webber was the Australian racing star his generation could relate to.

“For me, I think the impact he had growing up, obviously I knew of (Sir Jack) Brabham and (Alan) Jones and previous Australians before me, but Mark was the one I watched,” he explained. As a kid, I watched him growing up. And then, when he moved here (F1), the local racing community was talking about it.

“It was there in front of me when he was doing it and that sort of paved what seemed like an achievable path to follow.

“In the end, he was always nice to me. He was always there to call him, to give me advice. He understand the Red Bull system a little bit better. He was just a helping hand when I needed it.

“For us Aussies, it gave me a little bit of inspiration and motivation to move to Europe and follow what he was doing at the time.”

Ricciardo and Webber’s most memorable moment together this year was when Webber, who served as the podium interviewer at the Belgian Grand Prix, did Ricciardo’s now-signature “Shoey” at that race.

Nico Rosberg won with Ricciardo in second, but Webber succumbed to pressure in the moment and soaked up the taste of champagne out of a sweaty racing boot.

That’s dedication for you, mates.

Podcast: Haas F1 drivers explore NASCAR opportunities… at Talladega?

MONTMELO, SPAIN - FEBRUARY 22:  Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 and Esteban Gutierrez of Mexico and Haas F1 pose with the new car outside the garage during day one of F1 winter testing at Circuit de Catalunya on February 22, 2016 in Montmelo, Spain.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez will carry the home country’s flag for Haas F1 this weekend in the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit Of The Americas.

But the Formula One drivers also would like to race at other American tracks — namely those that play host to NASCAR races.

As guests on the latest NASCAR on NBC podcast, Grosjean and Gutierrez both said they have lobbied team owner Gene Haas about trying a stock car for Stewart-Haas Racing.

“I’d love to give it a go and try a day or two of testing and then see how we’re doing and from there have a go,” Grosjean said. “I do go-kart, I do ice racing, I do Formula One. I love driving, so NASCAR would be a really good thing to try.”

Said Gutierrez: “For me, it’s all about the curiosity to try something completely different. I’ve mentioned it once we should it as a team activity. It’s just (being) curious about a different concept.”

Grosjean has sat in an SHR Sprint Cup car and explored the concept of racing at Watkins Glen International, but scheduling logistics precluded it this year. He is hoping to revisit the concept of racing a NASCAR road course in 2017.

“Everything is different in the driving style,” the Frenchman said. “We brake very hard, very late, I’ve heard in NASCAR you don’t need to brake so hard.

“It would be different not being in the center of the car, with gear shift, but it would be a great experience. You’re fighting against the best drivers in NASCAR. They’ve been doing it for generations. It’d be a nice challenge, experience, and I’m sure I’d enjoy it.”

Gutierrez has more ambitious goals of driving a stock car on an oval, playfully suggesting a car swap with fellow countryman Daniel Suarez (a longtime friend whom he often raced while growing up in Mexico).

“It could be interesting just to go flat out and feel the limit of the car all the time,” Gutierrez said. “I’d go for a big one. Talladega. The craziest one.”

It won’t happen this weekend, of course. While NASCAR will be whittling its playoff field to eight drivers Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, Grosjean and Gutierrez will be racing in Austin, Texas.

It’s been an impressive debut season for Haas F1, which has scored points with Grosjean and advanced both cars to the final round of qualifying for the first time two weeks ago at Japan.

Grosjean said the team’s success is making inroads with American race fans.

“On social media, I can see that the United States grew massively in the percentage of my followers, which was great,” he said. “I wish we had more races in the U.S. It’s such a big country, we could have two to three grands prix. Definitely, things have changed, and people are really following us. It’ll be interesting to see how Austin goes.”

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on the AudioBoom embed below or download and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes by clicking here. The free subscription will provide automatic downloads of new episodes to your smartphone. It also is available on Stitcher by clicking here and also can be found on Google Play, Spotify and a host of other smartphone apps.

MotorSportsTalk’s Predictions: United States GP

AUSTIN, TX - OCTOBER 20:  Romain Grosjean of France and Haas F1 takes a photo of Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP, Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari and Nico Hulkenberg of Germany and Force India in the Drivers Press Conference  during previews ahead of the United States Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas on October 20, 2016 in Austin, United States.  (Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images)
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Formula 1 rolls into Austin, Texas this weekend for the United States Grand Prix as the fight for the drivers’ championship begins to near its endgame.

Nico Rosberg’s ninth victory of the season last time out in Japan saw him move into a 33-point lead at the top of the standings, leaving Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton with a mountain to climb in the closing four races of 2016.

Hamilton will be looking to breathe fresh life into his bid for a fourth world title this weekend at the Circuit of The Americas, a track he has won at three times before. Can he impress in front of a packed crowd?

Here are our picks for the United States Grand Prix.

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. No win in five races and a championship deficit of 33 points may make for bad reading, but I’m tipping Hamilton to impress at COTA. It’s a track he loves and has succeeded at before. With his mind now clear after Malaysia and Japan, he’ll bounce back on Sunday with a win.

Surprise Finish: Fernando Alonso. After a pretty miserable second homecoming for McLaren-Honda in Japan two weeks ago, I’m backing Alonso and Button to return to the points at COTA.

Most to Prove: Nico Rosberg. The title is now in Rosberg’s hands. It’s his to lose. Can he finish what he started?

Additional Storyline: Haas’ homecoming. Just how Haas goes down at its first home grand prix will be of particular interest. Both Romain Grosjean and Esteban Gutierrez have been absent from the points for a while, so a top-10 in front of a baying home crowd would be significant.

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

Race Winner: Lewis Hamilton. It’s win or bust for Hamilton with the championship at crunch time and a place he loves. I’ll say he takes it.

Surprise Finish: Esteban Gutierrez. I’ll say buoyed by his own qualifying performances of late and with the support of the home crowd helping the Haas F1 Team, the Mexican breaks his points-scoring drought of three years and finally gets that elusive first top-10 of the season.

Most to Prove: Renault’s current pair. With Kevin Magnussen rebuffing IndyCar rumors earlier this week and with Jolyon Palmer not on top of mind for the second Renault seat, each of these two needs to channel something deep and find a way to get a big result this weekend. A Q2 and points score would be realistic targets.

Additional Storyline: COTA back from the brink. Weather seriously tarnished last year’s GP here. Can the track rebound from an attendance standpoint, even though the racing in mixed conditions was great?

Predict the Podium

1. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes
2. Nico Rosberg Mercedes
3. Max Verstappen Red Bull