With media reports indicating that Sam Hornish, Jr. will not be driving the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports entry in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series come 2016, the 36-year-old’s stock car career may be coming to a close. After nine seasons in the NSCS, the Ohio native has never finished higher than 26th in the championship standings over 167 races.
Might Hornish be better served returning to the Verizon IndyCar Series, where he had much better success behind the wheel?
Hornish spent six years in IndyCar, during which he won three championships in 2001, 2002 and 2006. He also won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006 and was named the series’ Most Popular Driver in 2004. The Ohio native had more wins in IndyCar (19) than he had top ten finishes in Sprint Cup (12), over two less seasons.
It has to be frustrating that an athlete good enough to drive for Roger Penske in IndyCar is being let go by his race team in NASCAR.
But the aforementioned reports indicate that Hornish’s primary problem isn’t performance, it’s sponsorship. His name and his results in Sprint Cup racing aren’t bringing in the financial support that Richard Petty Motorsports is looking for with the No. 9 car. One figures that would be much less of a problem in IndyCar, where a race team could promote him as a three-time champion and winner of one of the biggest motorsports events in the world.
If Hornish was willing to consider a return to open-wheel racing, the question would be which squad would be able to take him on. The Big Three teams – Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – have pretty much locked down their lineups for next year, with the only big decision left what will happen to Ganassi’s No. 8 car split between Sage Karam and Sebastian Saavedra in 2015.
The smaller race teams might be more opening to adding a driver if Hornish could secure sponsorship. Rahal Letterman Lanigan recently signed Indy Lights champ Spencer Pigot to drive three races in a second car; perhaps Hornish could split seat time with Pigot if RLL wants to extend that car for a full season. Or if Karam returns, Ganassi could team him with a veteran presence in Hornish to give the rookie additional support after a tough 2015 campaign.
If nothing else, it’s commonplace for many teams to add another entry for the Indianapolis 500, and as a former winner Hornish would certainly attract some value there.
He even has precedent; Juan Pablo Montoya returned to IndyCar after his NASCAR drive with Ganassi fell through, and in just his second season back won the Indianapolis 500 and nearly captured the 2015 championship. If Hornish was willing to take another IndyCar drive, he could reasonably be considered a contender.
But would he want to return or is his heart now in stock car racing? Hornish will have to decide in the next few months what direction he wants to take his career in, and it may be dictated by where the money is to allow him to keep driving. But if he’s open to looking back in order to go forward, and a sponsor can take a chance on him, he might have a brighter future in IndyCar in 2016.
For more on the Verizon IndyCar Series, visit the league’s website.