You gotta give it up for Silly Season; it’s never a dull moment.
Well, maybe a little dull in this case, but certainly not uninteresting.
Sam Hornish, Jr. has been confirmed as the driver of the No. 9 Ford for Richard Petty Motorsports starting in 2015. The Ohio native replaces Marcos Ambrose, who’s heading back to his native Australia to race closer to home.
Hornish’s advancement to RPM comes as a shock to few. From the moment Ambrose was rumored to be leaving – and then once his departure was assured – Hornish was considered a frontrunner for the job, along with David Ragan. It’s not like he was a dark horse candidate who swept in at the last moment to take the seat, surprising everyone in the process. We’re not talking a Landon Cassill here, or even a Dakoda Armstrong.
At the same time, with this hire RPM found itself in a unique position. Unlike some of the powerhouse teams, like Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing, Petty doesn’t have a wealth of prospects in the lower series from which they could have pulled. Armstrong’s the only full-time driver in a lower circuit, and he’s only just now completing his first go-round in the Nationwide Series. Meanwhile, Ryan Truex and Corey LaJoie are “development drivers” for the team, but just in name only. The former has been tied up with another organization, BK Racing, while the latter has only made a handful of starts on NASCAR’s national level. Not having a stable of drivers in the “minors” left Petty able to pick from just about anywhere, without fear of angry sponsors or prospects languishing too long at lower levels.
RPM, in this environment had a chance to get aggressive; instead, their pick is rather safe. However, while he might not be the glamorous choice, Hornish is absolutely the best. In each square-off against the drivers mentioned as candidates, he scores the knockout, hands down. And that’s as a driver who hasn’t raced full-time in the Cup Series since all the way back in 2010.
The climb to respectability, for Hornish began three years ago. Following his demotion to the Nationwide Series by Penske Racing, he was a formidable foe there, first winning in a part-time schedule in 2011 and then competing for championships in 2012 and ’13. In his first full year of Nationwide competition, he also managed a prime gig as a replacement for AJ Allmendinger back on the Sprint Cup level, running Roger Penske’s No. 22 following Allmendinger’s suspension and nearly securing the open spot long-term. It wasn’t flashy, but he was a solid replacement, managing an average finish inside the top 20 and even running fifth at Watkins Glen.
So while he wasn’t Hall of Fame worthy behind the wheel of that car, especially compared to a teammate (Brad Keselowski) who went on to win the championship that season, Hornish showed for once that he belonged in the upper ranks. Those results suggested some sort of prolonged look in the Cup Series, the opportunity for an extended second chance.
He didn’t get that, in 2013 instead relegated to the Nationwide Series once again before being let go from Penske completely following the season. But what Hornish has accomplished since that layoff, in a shortened 2014 has been nothing short of tremendous.
Much like 2011, he’s back to a limited Nationwide schedule, with eight starts under his belt entering Charlotte – all for Joe Gibbs Racing, the team that arguably resurrected Hornish’s career. A win and four top 5s later, a competitive Cup ride came through.
What he’s been able to do in spot duty, subbing for Kyle Busch puts Hornish at a higher prestige than his contemporaries. One can argue that Truex deserved a look since he’s a development driver for Petty, but aside from having an abysmal rookie season in Cup this year prior to leaving BK Racing, his Nationwide results don’t quite compare to Hornish – and that’s even with, sometimes, the same cars. Truex drove seven races for Gibbs in 2012 and managed a top 5 and four top 10s, with three of those four 10th-place runs. He showed lukewarm promise in top-tier equipment, but not quite to the extent of Hornish.
Then there’s LaJoie, certainly an interesting option although rather risky. Without a full-time run in any NASCAR national series, is the son of former Nationwide champ Randy LaJoie really ready for that kind of jump? Give him a little longer to season.
Armstrong. No. Not ready. Let’s move on.
Really, it all comes down to one driver left, how Hornish got a neck over David Ragan. The Roush Fenway alum, who’s driven for Front Row Motorsports the past three seasons is a popular pick when it comes to a driver who should get another look at a top- or mid-tier Cup operation. But in 2014, Ragan has seen any and all top-10 finishes slip through his grasp. He’s all the way back in 32nd in points, posting an average result that just barely ticks into the top 30. His average finish, in fact has dropped three positions from last year – and that’s with Front Row having one less car to worry about on a full-time basis in 2014.
Most telling, though is Ragan’s output on the Nationwide side. Running six races for the part-time but laudable Biagi-DenBeste Racing, he has finished in the top 5 just once and only twice snuck inside the top 10. Call the No. 98 team’s equipment below Gibbs’, quality-wise and you’d be right. But it’s also reality that a driver with more Cup experience has, on paper, a less enticing season in the little leagues than his competitor for this RPM ride. Compared to Hornish, who has been up front most of the time and even has a win – making him fairly visible – it’s the kiss of death.
Now that the partnership’s official, it’s intriguing to see where Hornish goes from here. He’s gained a fair number of fans over the past few years since going off the full-time Cup Series life and has also shown an ability to win, one that transcends many of the drivers who’ve gone back a step after failing to make an impact in Cup their first time around.
With stats like his, over the past few years Hornish deserves that new look. Now, it’s time to see what he does with it.
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