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

McMurray, Hornish wins prove nice guys do finish first

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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.

Force India gives Renault tips ahead of Hulkenberg’s arrival for 2017

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 11:  Nico Hulkenberg of Germany driving the (27) Sahara Force India F1 Team VJM09 Mercedes PU106C Hybrid turbo on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 11, 2016 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Force India has sent Renault an early Christmas present by giving tips on how to look after Nico Hulkenberg ahead of his arrival at the team for the 2017 Formula 1 season.

Hulkenberg announced back in October that he would be leaving Force India at the end of the 2016 season, joining Renault for its second year back in F1 as a constructor.

In a tongue-in-cheek post on Force India’s Twitter account, the team gave Renault some advice on how to look after Hulkenberg.

“He answers the name of ‘Nico’, but ‘Hulk’ will do in public,” it reads.

“He has been a beloved member of our family for longer than we can remember, but it is time for him to go and find his own feet.

“Nico is friendly and of good nature, but there are just a few, simple rules to follow to take care of him:

  • Do not feed him after midnight.
  • Do not get him wet. Actually, just kidding. He’s pretty good in the wet.
  • Even though the resemblance can be uncanny, do not refer to him as ‘Johnny Bravo’ (if you do, let us know how it goes.

“And most importantly, and we can’t stress this enough…

  • Do NOT make him angry.

“Best of luck for your life together, your friends at Sahara Force India.”

Force India had previously left Hulkenberg’s helmet and race suit under its Christmas tree as a gift for Renault.

Porsche was quick to chip in on the claim that you shouldn’t feed Hulkenberg after midnight, with the German having ran pretty well in the early hours at Le Mans en route to victory in 2015.

The F1 season may be over, but the Twitter fun between the teams will continue through the winter.

Ricciardo: Verstappen’s arrival at Red Bull pushed me on

KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA - OCTOBER 02:  Daniel Ricciardo of Australia and Red Bull Racing celebrates with Max Verstappen of Netherlands and Red Bull Racing after their 1-2 finish during the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix at Sepang Circuit on October 2, 2016 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.  (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)
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Daniel Ricciardo says that Max Verstappen’s arrival at Red Bull four races in to the 2016 Formula 1 season helped him to raise his game as a driver.

Verstappen  swapped seats with Daniil Kvyat after the Russian Grand Prix in May, with Ricciardo’s former teammate moving back down to Red Bull’s feeder team, Toro Rosso.

Ricciardo and Verstappen enjoyed a strong 17-race stint as teammates through 2016, each taking one win and enough points to lift Red Bull up to second place in the constructors’ championship.

Reflecting on his season, Ricciardo admitted that he was unsure about how quickly Verstappen would fit in at Red Bull and get up to speed, but that he soon realized the quality of the Dutchman.

“It was a big thing. Especially that first weekend in Spain which was pretty crazy, and not just because he won,” Ricciardo said.

“I suspect the team didn’t know how good Max was and where he was going to fit. His win really gave us good energy and pushed us on to get stronger.

“In Spain everybody was watching, wondering if we’d made a mistake swapping Dany and Max around. I think his win was a relief more than anything. And it definitely pushed us on. Certainly it pushed me on.

“I think I’d been at the right level from the start of the season, which may have caused some of the commotion in the first place because I had a better start than Dany.

“With Max, I felt we were pushing each other from the off. He was closer to me in qualifying and so naturally that provides a spur because you’re looking at each other’s data and finding an extra bit here and there. It makes you better.”

Ricciardo conceded that the amicable relationship with Verstappen could become tense in 2017 should the pair become embroiled in a title fight, but hopes they can retain their mutual respect.

“Well, I’m not naïve. If we’re fighting for wins I’m sure the pressure and tension will rise,” Ricciardo said.

“But hopefully we’ll be able to look each other in the eye and say ‘good job’ afterwards.”

F1 2016 Driver Review: Lewis Hamilton

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JULY 10:  Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain and Mercedes GP celebrates his win on the start finish straight after the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 10, 2016 in Northampton, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Lewis Hamilton

Team: Mercedes AMG Petronas
Car No.: 44
Races: 21
Wins: 10
Podiums (excluding wins): 7
Pole Positions: 12
Fastest Laps: 3
Points: 380
Laps Led: 566
Championship Position: 2nd

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Lewis Hamilton’s year was an odd one. While he was at his brilliant best on a number of occasions, racking up 10 wins – more than any driver not to win the championship in F1 history – there were a handful of costly errors that ultimately cost him the title.

Yes, the reliability woes with the Mercedes power unit through the year hurt his title bid enormously. But that’s racing; bad luck is part and parcel of it, just as Nico Rosberg found out at points in 2014 and 2015.

Instead, Hamilton needs to look at himself to see where he could have done better in 2015. Poor starts in Australia, Bahrain, Italy and Japan were all damaging to his title challenge, as were weekends he was off the boil in Singapore and Baku.

Hamilton proved once again that he has a good balance between his life outside of F1, which he continues to quite clearly enjoy, judging by his Snapchat escapades, and his efforts on-track. He remains the strongest driver in the field. But this year, his old, successful mind-games were unable to knock Rosberg down. Nico had the answer this time around. Let’s see what 2017 brings for the Briton as he searches for a fourth World Championship.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

The year of Lewis revolved as much around him off-track as it did on it. Sometimes, his on-track runs ended through a spate of Mercedes mechanical woes, which were as unexpected as they were frustrating after a flawless winter.

Then there were his spats with the press, his Snapchat antics in Suzuka and his otherwise nonchalant approach to some outside-the-car commitments. From the outside, it seemed Hamilton was less engaged this year until he needed to be, then made peace with the fact he’d done all he could do as the year went on.

The year was defined, performance-wise, by his starts – and how poor some of them were. A number of wins were lost as a result. Even so, he still beat Rosberg 10-9 in wins and 12-8 in poles. The area he beat Rosberg in a category he wouldn’t want is DNFs – that crushing engine failure in Malaysia joined with the pair’s clash in Spain.

Hamilton was his usual peerless self at times though, and his rally to end the season with four straight wins was admirable in the face of a roller coaster year up to that point. His drive at Abu Dhabi was tenacious and smart; he backed Rosberg into the field as his only shot of snatching the title. He remains F1’s most fascinating character and out-and-out fastest driver, if not its current World Champion.

F1 2016 Driver Review: Nico Rosberg

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 27:  Nico Rosberg of Germany and Mercedes GP celebrates with his second place trophy after securing the F1 World Drivers Championship during the Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix at Yas Marina Circuit on November 27, 2016 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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As part of MotorSportsTalk’s review of the 2016 Formula 1 season, Luke Smith and Tony DiZinno look back on each driver’s year, starting today with World Champion Nico Rosberg.

Nico Rosberg

Team: Mercedes AMG Petronas
Car No.: 6
Races: 21
Wins: 9
Podiums (excluding wins): 6
Pole Positions: 8
Fastest Laps: 6
Points: 385
Laps Led: 489
Championship Position: 1st

Luke Smith (@LukeSmithF1)

Assuming that he doesn’t backtrack on his decision to retire from racing at any point in the future, 2016 will be remembered as the strongest year of Nico Rosberg’s motorsport career. Twice burned by championship defeats to Lewis Hamilton, the German bit back in 2016 with a new approach that yielded the ultimate reward.

Sure, his “one race at a time” rhetoric was boring; we like our champions to have some fire in their bellies. However, it worked wonders. Rosberg was no longer taking baggage and stress from race to race as he was through 2014 and 2015. Each race was a clean slate.

There were low moments, such as the clash with Hamilton on-track in Austria, but Rosberg recovered from his mid-season wobble nicely. Four second places is hardly the way to sign off a championship-winning season, but Rosberg cared little – he’d got the job done.

The greatest shame for 2017 is that we won’t get the chance to see if Rosberg can build on this breakthrough year and beat Hamilton again. Instead, he’s ‘one and done’; that’s it.

Tony DiZinno (@tonydizinno)

In the last year of the current regulations, Nico Rosberg always needed to win this year’s World Championship if he was to ensure he ever won one in his career. Rare do you think of him as being 31 years old, in the sport 11 seasons, because he still has a fresh face look – albeit not as young as his initial “baby face” days with Williams, and the birth of a potential mullet to match his World Champion father Keke.

Alas, Rosberg had whatever momentum carried over from winning the last three races of last season, and opened the year with four wins on the trot. The 2016 version of Rosberg did not crack despite the contact with Lewis Hamilton in Spain, nor really, through Hamilton’s midsummer run of six wins in seven races. Only in Austria did it ever look like Rosberg was really on the back foot.

His starts helped propel him all season and that crucial post-summer run of form with wins in Spa, Monza, Singapore and Suzuka was what shifted the momentum back in his corner. He trailed Hamilton by as many as 19 points but by Suzuka was up 33. He brought it home as needed to the finish, and is a deserving World Champ.