Addition of IndyCar champ Hornish will give Penske third Cup team
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Six times already Sam Hornish Jr. has tried to make it into NASCAR's main event, and all six times he's been sent home.
The failure has only made him want it more.
The three-time Indy Car Series champion is moving to NASCAR in 2008, joining the mass exodus of open-wheel stars fleeing to America's most popular racing series. He told The Associated Press he will drive the No. 77 Dodge next season for Penske Racing with Mobil 1 as the sponsor.
"I've tried to qualify for these Cup races, and it's kind of lit a little bit of fire in me to see if we can't get to the point where I am competitive," said Hornish, who will try again to make his Nextel Cup debut this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway.
"I am a much better racer than I am a qualifier, and if I can just get in, I feel confident I can figure it out."
The 28-year-old Hornish has been flirting with NASCAR since last season, but this jump was not guaranteed. Team owner Roger Penske left it in Hornish's hands, and his inability to make races had many wondering if Hornish would go back to Indy cars for one more season.
Instead, the most prolific American driver in open-wheel right now chose NASCAR, but said leaving was "one of the more difficult decisions" he's ever had to make.
"There are so many things that I have elected to do that are a lot easier," he said. "I feel like this is something that is a new and unique challenge for me.
"It may or may not be the right way to look at it, but I feel like I accomplished just about everything in Indy cars. I got to do more than I ever thought I would."
Penske will officially introduce Hornish as the third driver for his NASCAR team on Saturday night at the Penske Racing Museum in Phoenix. He'll join a team that already fields cars for Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.
Hornish will join Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve as former Indianapolis 500 winners and IndyCar series champions now racing in NASCAR's top series. Patrick Carpentier is also moving to NASCAR after a long open-wheel career, and AJ Allmendinger fled Champ Cars for NASCAR this season.
Scott Speed, who spent the last two years in Formula One, has also migrated to stock cars and will drive in the low-level ARCA Series next year to prepare for NASCAR.
Hornish knows he needs seat time, and there's speculation that Penske will swap the points Busch has earned this season to ensure Hornish makes the first five races of next season.
NASCAR rules currently guarantee a starting spot to the top 35 teams in owner points. It leaves just eight spots in the field each week for everyone else, and this season has been a horrendous struggle for many top-name drivers.
If Hornish gets Busch's points, he would get an automatic spot in the field for five weeks and Busch, the 2004 series champion, would have a provisional to fall back on should he fail to qualify on speed.
Hornish said he wasn't sure what Penske will do with the points, and a spokesman for the car owner said he was not available for comment Thursday.
But Hornish said making the first five races of 2008 will be critical to his success, and pointed to Montoya as proof.
The former F1 star inherited a team locked into the top 35 and didn't have to worry about making races at the start of the season, and Hornish believes that accelerated Montoya's adjustment.
"People always ask me why Montoya has been so successful, and the easy thing to say is because he had the points," Hornish said. "He had those first five races and he was automatically guaranteed to get that seat time.
"So if Roger wants to give me Kurt's points, I'm not going to tell him no. I'll take whatever I can get."
Franchitti, the reigning IndyCar and Indy 500 champ, is also inheriting a team inside the top 35. Carpentier and Villeneuve will both start the season outside, as will Allmendinger, who has been outside the top 35 all season and has qualified for just 17 of 34 races this year.
Hornish is entered in both the Nextel Cup and Busch Series races at Phoenix International Raceway, where he has two wins and three top-five finishes in Indy cars.
He made his NASCAR debut at Phoenix last season in the Busch race, finishing 36th.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press