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.

SuperMotocross: Ken Roczen urgently needed change

Roczen change
Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media
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Change can be frightening, but it is often exhilarating and Ken Roczen, a rider in his ninth season on a 450 bike, it was urgently needed.

Roczen ended the 2022 Supercross season with his worst performance in five years. After finishing outside of the top five in seven of his last eight rounds in the stadium series, well down the points’ standings in ninth, he decided to put that season on hold.

How it ended was in stark contrast to how it began. Roczen’s 2022 season got off to the best possible start. He won the Supercross opener at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California by more than seven seconds over the 2021 champion Cooper Webb.

That would be his last podium and he scored only one more top-five in the Glendale, Arizona Triple Crown.

MORE: Ken Roczen sweeps top five in Anaheim 2 Triple Crown

Before 2022, Roczen was a regular challenger for the championship despite being plagued by major accidents that required surgery in 2017 and 2018. On his return, he was diagnosed with the Epstein-Barr virus, which presents with symptoms of heavy fatigue, muscle weakness and loss of appetite and last year he tested positive for COVID-19.

Against those odds, he finished second in the outdoor season in 2019 and third in 2020. In the Supercross series, he finished third in 2020 and second in 2021.

But the abbreviated season of 2022 signaled a need for change for Roczen.

“I needed the change urgently,” Roczen said in last week’s post-race press conference at Angel Stadium. “I did a pretty big change in general.”

Those comments came three races into the 2023 with him sitting among the top three finishers for the first time in 10 Supercross rounds. It was the 57th podium of his career, only six behind 10th-place Ryan Villopoto. It was also the first for Suzuki since 2019 when Chad Reed gave them one in Detroit 63 rounds ago.

Taking time off at the end of the Supercross season had the needed effect. He rejoined SuperMotocross in the outdoor season and immediately stood on the podium at Fox Raceway in Pala, California. Two rounds later, he won at Thunder Valley in Lakewood, Colorado. The relief was short lived and he would not stand on the podium again until this year.

Roczen Motocross Round 3
Ken Roczen won Round 3 of the outdoor season in 2022 at Thunder Valley after finished second in Moto 1 and first in Moto 2. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

Winds of Change

Roczen’s offseason was dramatic. Citing differences over his announcement to compete in the World Supercross Championship, he split with Honda HRC and declared himself a free agent. It wasn’t a difficult decision; Roczen was signed only for the Supercross season.

That change had the desired effect. Roczen won the WSX championship in their two-race, pilot season. More importantly, he proved to himself that he could compete for wins.

Late in the offseason, Roczen announced he would also change manufacturers with a move to HEP Progressive Ecstar Suzuki. He won the 2016 Pro Motocross title for Suzuki with nine wins in 12 Nationals and finished no worse than second. He easily outran the competition with an advantage of 86 points over second-place Eli Tomac.

“I just think change overall made it happen – and these overseas races – it’s really just a snowball,” Roczen said. “You start somewhere and you feel like something works out and I got better and had more fun doing it. Working with the team as well and working on the motorcycle to get better and actually see it paying off. It’s just, it’s just a big boost in general.”

The return to Suzuki at this stage of his career, after nearly a decade of competing on 450 motorcycles, recharged Roczen. He is one of three riders, (along with Cooper Webb and his former Honda teammate Chase Sexton), with a sweep of the top five in the first three rounds of the 2023 Supercross season.

But last week’s podium really drove home how strong he’s been.

“I think we’re all trying to take it all in,” Roczen said. “I wouldn’t say it came out of nowhere really, but before the season starts you think about – or I thought of how my whole last season went – and it’s been a long time since I’ve been on the podium.”

Roczen’s most recent podium prior to Anaheim 2 came at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville, Maryland last August in Round 10 of the outdoor season. His last podium in Supercross was the 2022 season opener that raised expectations so high.

Supercross Round 1 results
Ken Roczen raised expectations with his season opening win at Anaheim but did not stand on the box again in the Supercross series. Feld Motor Sports/MX Sports Pro Racing/Align Media

The change Roczen needed was not just a different team and bike. More importantly, he needed the freedom to set his own schedule and control his training schedule.

“It’s long days, but I’m really into it at the moment,” Roczen said. “Overall, I felt [that] throughout this off season and now my health has been really well, really good, so that helps. It’s needed to get to the top. I’m pretty confident that we’re, we’re doing the right thing – that I’m doing the right thing.

“I’m doing all my training on my own and I’m planning out my entire week. And I feel like I have a really good system going right now with recovery and putting in some hard days. Right now, I don’t really have anybody telling me what to do. I’m the best judge of that.

“It’s really hard to talk about how much work we’ve put in, but we’ve been doing some big changes and riding a lot throughout the week, some really, really late days. And they’re paying off right now; we’re heading in the right direction. We’re all pulling on the same string, and that helps me out big time.”