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

Helio Castroneves: ‘I have nothing to lose’ Sunday in bid for 4th Indy 500 win

All photos: IndyCar
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You might say Helio Castroneves comes into Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 with a “less is more” philosophy than he’s had in years past:

* No pressure

* No worrying about points

* No worrying about winning a championship

Take away all those things and the very popular Brazilian driver could be in the best position he’s ever been to achieve the biggest goal of his career:

Winning a fourth Indy 500, making him a member of motor racing’s most exclusive club, joining legendary drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as the only drivers to conquer the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway four times each.

Like his car number, Castroneves has won the Indy 500 three times. He wants to change that number to four times in Sunday’s 102nd Running of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Photo: IndyCar.

“For sure, I definitely don’t have much to lose in terms of points, championships, and things like that,” Castroneves told MotorSportsTalk earlier this week. “I don’t have to think that I don’t have a car to win, I’m not going to risk that much because there are still championship points (to earn if he was still racing full-time in the series).

“Not that I did that before, but if the situation occurs, people just need to know I have nothing to lose this time.”

Castroneves three prior triumphs in the 500 came in his first two years in the field – 2001 and 2002 – and again in 2009. In addition, he has finished twice in the last four editions of the Greatest Spectacle In Racing in 2014 and 2017.

Coming so close last year, losing to Takuma Sato by .201 of a second, is something Castroneves hasn’t forgotten about. To come so close to No. 4 has only made him more hungry to get it done on Sunday.

“Yeah, but if it were easy, we would likely have had more than four wins by now,” he said. “We’ve had opportunities in the past, the last four years we were really competitive, we were right there, especially in ’14 and ’17, we were right on it.

“Last year, I thought it was going to be the hardest 500 for me and look what happened: we were battling to the end for a victory,” Castroneves said. “It’s not just about trying hard, it’s about being there at the right place at the right time.

“And this place, Indianapolis, I’ve always said the track winds up choosing who is going to be the winner. Hopefully, with safety and luck, we’ll be part of it and be on the right side.”

Team owner Roger Penske decided after last season to put Castroneves and Juan Pablo Montoya as the chief drivers of Team Penske’s new two-car effort in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship sports car series.

When the announcement was first made, many feared that Castroneves had run out of chances to get that elusive No. 4 at Indy.

But Penske sweetened the deal for Helio to go sports car racing by promising he’d field a car for him at Indy. And Penske has proven to be a man of his word, giving Castroneves everything he needs to finally win No. 4.

“I feel we’ve prepared as much as a team, we’re doing everything possible in relation to preparation,” Castroneves said. “The preparation we had in the previous year helps us tremendously to give us an opportunity fighting there for a win, and that’s what we’re looking for.”

Castroneves has taken to the new style Indy car with aplomb. During the first week of practice leading up to last weekend’s qualifying, he was consistently one of the fastest drivers in the field.

The 43-year-old even topped the speed charts in the Fast Nine last Saturday before ending up eighth in the following day’s pole qualifying.

As a result, he’ll start Sunday’s race from the middle of Row 3, anchoring Team Penske’s four-man Top 8 starting lineup effort in the 500. When the green flag drops, to his left will be Danica Patrick and to his right will be four-time IndyCar champ and former 500 winner Scott Dixon.

And millions of others right behind him, so to speak.

“I feel the sense that everyone wants it to happen,” he said of winning No. 4. “We’re talking about being part of history here. The last guy to do it was Rick Mears in the ‘90s (1991).

“I mean, how cool would that be if I would be in the position and to see No. 4 in my era. I hear a lot of the fans, even those supporting different drivers, all saying ‘Man, I want to see you win No. 4.’ That just shows how special this place is.

“(The Indy 500) is part of a lot of people’s lives. I just would be very fortunate to hopefully to have this generation see someone do No. 4.”

While he’d rather not think about missing out on a fourth win at Indy for a ninth straight year, Castroneves is using reverse psychology somewhat.

He’s going into Sunday’s biggest race in the world fully believing he will finally win No. 4.

And if he does, forget the idea that he would never come back to race at Indy again.

“Not at all. Why? You’re so close to getting four, and then when you get four, you stop it? It doesn’t make sense.

“I think I still have at least four or five more years, there’s no question about it. As long as Roger (Penske) gives me the opportunity, I’m going to be going for it, for sure.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski