Will reigning IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. be the next open-wheel star to make the switch to Nextel Cup?
THE MOST important driver in the IndyCar Series not named Danica Patrick swears he doesn't know if he'll switch to NASCAR next season. But given the increasing allure of Nextel Cup racing over the last few years, go ahead and mark this down: Sam Hornish Jr., the reigning Indy 500 winner and three-time IndyCar season champion, will soon be piloting a stock car full time on Sundays.
It's nothing new for open-wheel drivers to bolt to NASCAR. Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman all did it (and imagine how star-studded IndyCar racing could be right now if they hadn't), but over the past year NASCAR has become an even more powerful magnet to drivers in the open-wheel ranks. Most famously, Juan Pablo Montoya left Formula One—the world's most popular racing series, though perhaps not one that plays in Peoria—last July to drive for Cup owner Chip Ganassi. Then in October, A.J. Allmendinger, who had won five races in the Champ Car World Series in '06, moved to NASCAR's Team Red Bull. Those defections have not only transformed the landscape of American motor sports but also threatened the relevancy of open-wheel racing in the U.S.
Crows NASCAR chairman Brian France, "This is the place to be when you want to test your skills against the best drivers in the world."
It's almost impossible to deny. Still, why would the 27-year-old Hornish, who grew up in the heart of open-wheel country—Defiance, Ohio—with posters of four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears on his bedroom walls, leave the circuit he dreamed of dominating as a kid? Well, there's more exposure in NASCAR, thanks to its monster television contracts with Fox, ESPN and ABC. Which means there's also more money in NASCAR, thanks to the larger purses and far greater endorsement opportunities.
Most important for Hornish, NASCAR offers a new test of his skills. "There's just not a lot left for me to accomplish [in IndyCar]," he says. "When Michael Jordan tried playing baseball, he did it because he wanted a new challenge, and maybe I will too. But obviously I've got to get better at stock car racing."
Indeed, Hornish is struggling to make the transition from the nimble, 1,600-pound IndyCar vehicles to the ponderous, 3,400-pound stock cars. This season Hornish, who is running a full IndyCar schedule and after the first two events was fifth in the point standings, has competed in four races in the Busch Series, and his average finish has been an underwhelming 26.5. Last Saturday in the Pepsi 300 at Nashville Superspeedway, Hornish had plenty of problems: He brushed the wall and cut a tire early, he was twice busted for speeding on pit road, and later in the race he collided with Johnny Sauter. Driving a Dodge owned by Roger Penske, who is also the boss of Hornish's IndyCar team, Hornish came in 25th. But afterward he took comfort in one fact: He was acquiring more stock car experience.
"There's not a lot that transfers over from open wheel to stock cars, but every time I'm out on the track, I get more comfortable," Hornish said. "Kurt [Busch] has helped me out and given me a lot of advice. Will I ever move full time to stock cars? At this point I just don't know."
We've heard this tune before from open-wheel stars. Looks like we'll be seeing you soon in the Cup series, Sam.
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1 The Busch Series points race is as good as over. After seven of 35 races this season, Carl Edwards (right) owns a 321-point lead over Dave Blaney in the standings. Edwards took the checkered flag in the Pepsi 300 last Saturday for his second victory of the year, and he has a shot at eclipsing the single-season wins record of 10, which was set by Sam Ard in 1983.
2 Toyota may be struggling in its debut season in the Cup series, but the Japanese-based automaker is thriving in the Busch. Last Saturday in Nashville the three Toyotas in the field finished second (David Reutimann), third (Blaney) and fourth (Jason Leffler). Beware, Cup teams: The giant is slowly awakening.
3 A Busch regular—that is, a driver competing only in the Busch Series, as opposed to Busch Whackers like Edwards—has yet to win a race this year. (Leffler's fourth is the best '07 finish by a pure Busch racer.) Expect the trend to continue all season.
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TRADING PAINT 500 winner Hornish (right) is battling in the Busch (12) and IndyCar series.
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JOHN RUSSELL/AP (EDWARDS)