Sam Hornish Jr. has much to be thankful for: new home, renewed Sprint Cup hopes with Richard Petty Motorsports


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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With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”