It’s taken longer than he hoped for, but persistence to return to a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup Series has finally paid off for Sam Hornish Jr.
The 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and a three-time IndyCar champion will be back on the Cup scene in 2015 full-time with Richard Petty Motorsports.
The Defiance, Ohio native succeeds Marcos Ambrose behind the wheel of the No. 9 RPM Ford. Ambrose has returned to his native Australia to race in the V8 Supercars series after nine seasons of competition in NASCAR.
“With each day we get one day closer to the beginning of the season, I feel this is a great opportunity for me,” Hornish told MotorSportsTalk in a recent exclusive interview. “We’ve got a lot of work to do to get where they want to be at and where I want to be at. But I also look at this as a great building exercise to build something together.”
When Hornish became available, he just seemed like a natural fit for RPM.
“We’re excited about Sam coming over,” said RPM director of operations Sammy Johns. “We’ve done a few tests with both Aric (teammate Aric Almirola) and him. They both have real similar driving styles and run very similar laps, so we’re excited about that. I think that’s really going to help us as an organization, to be able to work on common things for the two cars.
“I can’t say enough about Sam. As everybody knows in the garage, he’s a super guy, super nice, super humble but a great talent behind the wheel. He’s a championship-caliber race car driver and we’re looking forward to helping him get back to being a champion.”
It was hoped – if not expected – that based upon his IndyCar success, that Hornish would be able translate that success to NASCAR. But a long learning curve, coupled with opportunities that fell short due to lack of better equipment or sponsorship, hindered Hornish.
Up until now, that is. He’s now with a two-car operation that has a strong alliance with Roush Fenway Racing and which is also making its own moves upward in the Cup ranks.
“He had a great chance in good Nationwide cars and was a couple of points away from winning the championship there (in 2013),” Hornish’s new crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer said. “I think that proved he can do it over here.
“He’s shown us in our tests so far that he’s can get up to speed and is extremely capable of driving stock cars already. We’re thrilled about the opportunity to give Sam that second chance and let him get in our cars and prove that he’s a top-notch stock car driver.”
Hornish isn’t necessarily looking at his move to RPM as a second chance in his Cup career, rather as his real true big chance to finally enjoy success on NASCAR’s highest level of racing.
When Hornish wasn’t able to immediately translate his IndyCar success to NASCAR, he struggled. But at the same time, it was a very valuable learning experience.
“It’s made me a better person all-around,” Hornish said. “I can’t be disappointed at how those things turned out. Those were life experiences. The only thing I can do is to direct my past failures and really be able to try and turn them into a success somewhere down the road.
“To get this opportunity and to be up against some pretty good people who were looking to be up for the same opportunity and maybe had a few more cards in their hands, to be the guy that was chosen, I can’t be more excited about it.”
During his stint in the IRL, Hornish won 19 races and three championships (2001, 2002 and 2006), enjoying 47 overall podium finishes in 118 starts.
Almost a decade later, Hornish, now 35, has compiled a record of 131 Sprint Cup starts, zero wins, three top-five and nine top-10 finishes.
It was in the Nationwide Series where Hornish found the greatest success in a stock car. He made 107 career starts with three wins, 32 top-five and 57 top-10 finishes, along with seven poles.
He finished fourth in the NNS standings in 2012 and just barely missed the championship in 2013, finishing second.
Hornish’s reward for doing so well in the NNS with Team Penske? Surely, a promotion back to Sprint Cup, right?
Wrong. Not only was he not promoted, he did not have his contract renewed. And because his release came so late in the season, there were few open opportunities remaining.
He ultimately picked up a 8-race Nationwide Series deal with Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014 that was successful, with one win (at Iowa, see video) and four top-five finishes in eight starts.
“Sam has a lot to prove,” Blickensderfer said. “He came to the highest level of this sport right away from open-wheel racing and had a lot to learn. At the time, he didn’t have the greatest cars, I don’t think. That organization (Team Penske) has obviously picked it up a lot in the last few years, compared to when Sam drove there. Nobody got to see Sam’s true talent.
“We’ve gone and done some tests and I’m real impressed at his speed, feedback and willingness to get back into stock car racing and prove to everybody he’s the driver that they saw in Indy cars.”
In a sense, this is Hornish’s second first chance in Sprint Cup, with an organization that has made considerable gains in the last few seasons, including Almirola qualifying for the Chase this season (eliminated after the first round).
It’s a team that is definitely on the move upward.
“They’re (RPM is) not where they want to be and are real hungry to make the team better and to grow it with sponsorships and the success side of it,” Hornish said. “I’m just looking real forward to the opportunities and seeing what we can do.”
Hornish feels fortunate to be able to not only restart his Cup career, but also that RPM chose him over a reported five other candidates, particularly when it appeared he might once again get only a handful – if any, at all – of XFINITY Series races to compete in for JGR in 2015.
“Sam has obviously been around some top organizations and understands how they work,” Johns said. “He can bring some of that experience to us, as well as us giving him good equipment, good cars and a consistent opportunity in the Cup Series to go be successful. We’re looking forward to work with him.”
Besides the IRL success he enjoyed, Hornish has arguably one of the most unique resumes in the racing world. He’s the only driver to have ever raced for three of the most iconic names in motorsport: Roger Penske, Joe Gibbs and now NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty.
In other words, he’s gone from driving for a Captain (Penske’s nickname) to a Coach (Gibbs) to a King (Petty).
“I’ve taken a tremendous amount of pride to be able to say I’ve worked for some of the most highly-respected team owners in all of racing,” Hornish said. “You’ve got a seven-time champion and 200-race winner (Petty) that I work for now on the NASCAR side, you’ve got a Super Bowl winner and three-time NASCAR championship-winning team owner (Gibbs), and a 15-time Indianapolis 500 car owner and NASCAR championship team owner (Penske).”
And now Hornish has a lot to give thanks for on Thanksgiving, with a new team, new organization and a new lease on his racing life.
“Obviously one of the biggest bonuses about this whole thing is to get the opportunity to work for Richard Petty,” Hornish said. “As a driver, having an opportunity to work for one of the biggest racing icons in motorsports, that’s a great addition to your legacy, especially to the NASCAR side. I’m real excited about that.”
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