NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? … Hornish Hire Sign Of Shift In NASCAR’s Ford Hierarchy

Did You Notice? … Sam Hornish, Jr.’s strategy worked? His choice to run a limited schedule, in top-notch Nationwide equipment as opposed to running full-time with a struggling team paid off this week. Hornish will be the replacement for Marcos Ambrose in 2015, driving the No. 9 Ford for a Richard Petty Motorsports program that both won and made the Chase with their No. 43 team and driver Aric Almirola.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Sam Hornish, Jr. is climbing back up the NASCAR ladder, into the Cup Series full-time with this week’s announcement he’ll replace Marcos Ambrose in the No. 9 Ford for 2015. (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

For Hornish, who lost his full-time ride with Roger Penske this season a move to jump to Joe Gibbs Racing, playing super sub for Kyle Busch paid off. Hornish ran only eight races in 2014, along with a Sprint Cup event subbing for Denny Hamlin but won once, at Iowa and collected four top-5 finishes. Winning two poles, he was consistently up front and on camera, making the most of his opportunity with one of the strongest Nationwide Series programs. That kept him relevant, while accomplishing a personal goal of spending time with his family and taking a step back after so many years being front and center in multiple forms of racing.

RPM saw Hornish’s improvement, from afar along with an impressive 17th-place substitute effort for Hamlin, on short notice at Fontana when he was tabbed for the ride just hours before the start of the race. There’s no doubt the former open-wheel star has studied hard, putting the effort into becoming a patient stock car driver after a tumultuous first time around the Cup circuit. With Ambrose leaving but RPM’s team improving, the personality match seems perfect for a program that’s been growing behind the success of the No. 43 team and fellow clean-cut professional Almirola.

“He’s a family man who fits well with our core values and he will be a great ambassador for our partners,” co-owner Richard Petty said announcing the move. “Sam’s also proven that he can win races and compete for a championship. He came into the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series with a steep learning curve from open wheel racing, but has shown in the Nationwide Series that he is a winner.”

I knew Hornish had turned down offers last season, most notably from BK Racing to return to the Cup Series full-time. There was a lot of questioning his maneuver to run part-time but considering the way things turned out, with Ryan Truex reportedly owed money by the BK program and the way in which small teams seemed pushed to the fringes these days quality, not quantity clearly won out. It’s a precedent that could change the way other drivers think when losing their rides; could it change the urge to do anything, even start-and-park just to keep “the name alive” and in the minds of NASCAR owners? After all, the goal of racing is to win, and no driver likes stomaching running 35th every week just to “hope” they’ll get a better chance down the road.

Hornish’s hire also shows the new influence Penske has over Ford’s Cup program these days. David Ragan, the other main driver up for the No. 9 opening was a Roush Fenway guy. Instead, Penske’s influence and support – the owner still believes in Hornish – paid off here, the second time in two months a decision has leaned his way. The talented Ryan Blaney, moving up the ranks will drive for the Wood Brothers in 2015 with Penske support, a marked change from Trevor Bayne and the way in which the Woods were an extension of RFR the past few seasons.

As for RFR, Bayne is running for them at Charlotte instead of the Woods’ No. 21, which is not entered. If Advocare steps up for more races, who knows? You could see Blaney in the No. 21 Ford before the end of the season, depending on where he stands in the Truck Series championship race. Either way, it’s clear that while Hornish earned his second chance, when it comes to the Blue Oval crowd RFR is most definitely sitting in second place, after years of keeping the manufacturer afloat on their own.

RPM, if they play their cards right could be in position to challenge RFR for that spot, come 2015 as far-fetched as that might sound. Almirola, during the Chase has shown the No. 43 has the potential to be a top-10 car. Hornish will be out to prove himself next season in the same mindset that caused AJ Allmendinger to raise the No. 47 Chevrolet up a notch. Compare that to RFR’s lineup, where Bayne has struggled since his upset 2011 Daytona 500 win, two years removed from even a top-10 result in Cup. With Edwards departing, Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. have resumes this season that are weaker than their RPM counterparts. RPM has more top-5 finishes with Almirola and Ambrose (5 to 4) and also has the win that duo hasn’t come close to achieving. Surprised, right? This move speaks to RFR’s place on the totem pole, a place that’s more precarious now than perhaps it’s ever been.

Did You Notice? … The days of a driver like Matt Kenseth charging from the back to the front to earn a Cup victory are over. As track position becomes increasingly important, it’s interesting to note how just two of the last 19 races have been won by a driver starting outside the top 10. One of those, Daytona in July was a restrictor plate race, where Almirola won from the 15th starting spot. Only Brad Keselowski, who started 25th at Chicagoland has broken the trend during NASCAR’s late spring, summer, and early fall.

(Credit: CIA Stock Photography)
Can Jimmie Johnson recover from his October stumble at Kansas? (Credit: CIA Stock Photography)

It’s no surprise, of course the top 5 drivers in average start this season have collected 19 of 30 Cup Series victories in 2014: Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson. But Johnson, despite his consistency in qualifying also showed the difficulty of recovering from a poor starting spot at Kansas. It takes a gargantuan amount of time to move up from the rear, patience, and a little bit of pit strategy. It took Denny Hamlin, who was 25th at the start of the day at Kansas 90 laps to move inside the top 10. That’s well over 135 miles of competition. It sounds reasonable, within a 400-mile event but I think the slow pace of drivers moving up these days, combined with the “instant gratification” fans get on plate tracks, where that movement can occur in about five laps creates a disconnect on “cookie-cutter” tracks. Not enough passing happens, quickly enough that for the ADD, 18-to-34 generation labels races as “boring.” It’s an interesting trend to note, one that NASCAR is hoping to reverse with a 2015 rules package designed to reduce aero dependency and making passing easier.

Did You Notice? … Quick hits before we take off…

–  Only six drivers have more top-10 finishes than rookie Kyle Larson’s fifteen this season. Only five drivers have finished on the lead lap more often (which Larson has done in 23 of 30 races). All this outstanding freshman season is missing, at this point is a win. But here’s a stat that may surprise you: the driver who has completed more laps, than anyone else on the Cup circuit this season after 30 races is fellow rookie Austin Dillon. His 8,569 laps completed is 13 more than Jeff Gordon and 36 more than third-place Casey Mears?! Dillon, while not getting the top-10 results many anticipated has at least been logging laps and gaining experience for the future.

–  Expect Hendrick Motorsports to come ready to play at Charlotte. I think, considering Jimmie Johnson’s May success there you could see a dominating performance by the No. 48/88 shop. Also, don’t count out the success of Kasey Kahne, who feels Charlotte is his strongest track on the circuit and is a place he’s won at multiple times. HMS knows, with three drivers well outside the top-8 cutoff they need one of them to earn a victory Saturday night to earn “protection” from Talladega chaos. Even a big wreck there might not be enough for a guy like Earnhardt, who’s dug such a hole that a 3rd-3rd to finish off this round of the Chase could leave him on the outside looking in. HMS has to win… it’s that simple.

 

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Carl D.

I like Hornish and I’m glad to see him get a decent ride. I think he’s the best driver RPM could have hoped to sign, and RPM is the best cup team Hornish could have realistically gotten a chance to drive for.

GinaV24

Happy for Hornish – he has worked hard to get a decent ride. Tom, I’ve watched racing for a long time and I understand that during a long race it may take a while to work thru to the front, but I don’t even I don’t enjoy racing w/o much passing. The aerodependence issue has existed for many years and as a fan, I’m tired of being “patient” and waiting for whatever rule change NASCAR will attempt “next year” to throw at the problem but which never seems to fix it. I simply doubt that NASCAR has a freaking clue what they are doing. They’d rather do a bunch of stupid things and re-format the “chase” one more time than just admit that they don’t know how to fix the problem on the bigger tracks.

Goodyear for a few races managed to bring a tire that actually gave up and allowed for more passing, but then reverted 5 races in to go back to their rock hard tire that has produced follow the leader racing except for the restart madness.

RussThe

There is no ” fix” to the aero issue. You cant makethe air go away. Nor can you make. The engineers forget everything. They know. Everyyear in F1 they try to take downforce away.Every year the engineers find it somewhere else.
While willing to be proven wrong, I doubt that. Much will change.

JohnQ

Yawn. All the Hornish hire proves is that RPM is a second rate play it safe organization dedicated to mediocrity. If Sam Hornish was twins and he raced himself they would both lose.

buckie16

…wishful thinking? Go RPM!

kb

I like Same enough, but he has had more than a chance to show his mettle in the Cup series and it did not materialize. Even in NW when he didn’t get the Championship, his teammates won more races than him. I dunno. I just think it’s going to be “Slammin Sammy” for RPM or not much of a points improvement for RPM. We shall see, what we shall see.

bert

he would have won the NW championship last year but nascar officals ran off the clock on yellow to help grand baby scab win

kb

Oh I know…there was no doubt the 3 wasn’t going to hoist that trophy. Too much of a Nascar “Cinderella” story with the 3 going into Cup again. Had to get the 3 fans on board..lol. He was indeed robbed, by design..imo.

buckie16

Great to see Sammy in the RPM Ford! As Marcos is, Sam’s a great caliber character & will do Ford proud. With RYE & Team Penske pushing RPM, we have seen remarkable progress this year. Imo signing Sam ensures RPM will continue to develop & improve.
Hard to second guess the King. At this late point in the season, the young promising NNS guys are already tied up (Blaney/Elliot) or just not ready (Armstrong/C.Buescher). Likewise, all the top-flight Cup drivers are typically spoken for too. Sam, every bit a top-light wheel-man, is the anomaly in that he opted to sit outside the box & wait for this sort’a chance. And imo it’s ironic that his profile is eerily similar to that if the driver he is replacing, so it’s seemingly a perfect fit.
So, as a die-hard Ford enthusiast, I find this very exciting. Nonsensical for CE to leave a somewhat faltering effort to go to another somewhat faltering effort. That hurts a bit, but parking Sammy in the #9 goes a long way in filling that void, because I just don’t see Manica’s BF or Trevor as step ups talent wise.

racefangurl

The Wood Brothers don’t plan to go to Phoenix. Roush could run T-Bayne there without a need to have the Wood Brothers put Ryan Blaney in the 21, since they won’t be there. One of the Woods said Trevor Bayne was his favorite driver he’d had in the car. I hope these young drivers, (Bayne and Blaney) and, even if he’s no longer super young by racer standards, Hornish can make the most of their opportunities next year. I hope T-Bayne can win another race with the Wood Brothers, maybe ‘Dega, where he’s led laps and another Nationwide race, maybe Texas since that was were his first win was, before he moves up.

Russ

Since Ford is calling the shots as to the new drivers it seems the real shift is away from Roush toward Penske.. That would in some ways be poetic justice.

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