In sports like baseball and hockey, it isn’t uncommon for a player to move between the major and minor leagues during his career. In NASCAR, not so much. Once a driver has made it to the major league Sprint Cup Series, history dictates he’ll stay there until he can’t find a ride. When that time comes, he’s more than welcome to move back a series and race in the Xfinity or Camping World Truck Series tours, but moving back to Cup is nearly impossible.
Drivers like Elliott Sadler and Regan Smith, both former Cup drivers, have been mired in the NXS for years, waiting for a chance to move back up to Cup but finding themselves passed over in favor of younger drivers who haven’t yet had a chance. Until 2015, only Brian Vickers was able to parlay a step backwards into the NXS to a full-time Cup ride.
In 2015, Sam Hornish Jr. joined him in that accomplishment.
Hornish, a Team Penske transplant from IndyCar to Cup in 2008, struggled during his initial go-around in the bulkier stock cars. In his first three full-time seasons, he was only able to score nine top-10 finishes, and when team owner Roger Penske contracted from three teams to two in 2011, Hornish was without a ride.
From 2011-2014, Hornish ran 87 NXS races, including two full-time campaigns where he finished fourth and second in points. A breakthrough victory at Phoenix, followed by two more at Las Vegas and Iowa led Hornish to be signed by Richard Petty Motorsports to drive its No. 9 Ford.
A 12th-place finish in the Daytona 500 looked to be a good omen for the team, but things quickly went south from there. For one, RPM had trouble securing sponsorship for the team, with Hornish being represented by 11 different companies during the season.
Further, Hornish struggled mightily throughout the season, with his performance equaling that of his first attempt at Cup racing. Including the 12th-place run at Daytona, Hornish was only able to crack the top 20 in five of the season’s first 18 races. This included six finishes of 30th or worse. Top 10s at Talladega and Sonoma were bright spots, sure, but did nothing to right Hornish’s overall performance. By the time Kentucky was complete, Hornish was 27th in points.
Contrast that to his teammate at RPM, Aric Almirola, who was 16th in points, on the cusp of a Chase berth, despite a single top-10 run. Hornish’s struggles had to be due to the learning curve, right? After all, the last time he’d run a full-time Cup season he was running in the Gen-5 Car of Tomorrow.
The back half of Hornish’s season saw the Ohio native finish in the top 20 eight times, including a ninth place at Watkins Glen. He even led 22 laps at Charlotte in October, the only laps he led all season. The uptick in performance was lost among the headline-grabbing Chase, and the points damage that had been done in the first 18 races was too much. Hornish would end the season 26th in points, with three top 10s, two DNFs, and an average finish of 24.3.
Those stats, combined with the lack of funding, put Hornish’s future in serious jeopardy. In November, owner Richard Petty said that Hornish was unlikely to continue racing the No. 9 in 2016. “We’ve got to look at sponsorship as much as anything else,” Petty told reporters in Phoenix. “It’s a combination deal. We can’t just go with a driver and then not have the money, and we can’t go with just the money and not have a driver, so it’s gonna be interesting.”
The speculation became fact on Dec. 11, when Brian Scott was introduced as the new driver of the No. 9. Scott brings sponsorship to the table, with Albertsons and Shore Lodge backing the car.
Hornish is currently looking for a ride. On the Cup side, BK Racing could be a good fit for the driver as they have been known to take veteran racers into their fold. A better fit might be regressing, once again, to the NXS and attempting a full season in hopes of catching a Cup owner’s eye. Either way, Hornish’s Cup prospects are looking dim for 2016.