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.
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.
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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