Sam Hornish Jr. is back in victory lane. However, this time, it is with a new organization. After making the move to Joe Gibbs Racing from Team Penske over the off-season, Hornish is running a part-time schedule this season.
On Sunday afternoon, the 35-year-old Ohio native was able to capture his first victory with his new team. Hornish dominated the Get to Know Newton 250 at the Iowa Speedway, leading 167 of the 250 laps. In just his second start of the year in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, last year’s championship runner-up held off Ryan Blaney throughout the day. Blaney and Hornish were the only two drivers to lead during green flag conditions, swapping the lead eight times amongst each other.
The victory marks the second straight for JGR after winning at Talladega with Elliott Sadler, and it is the organization’s fourth victory of 2014. The win is also JGR’s second victory at the Iowa Speedway with the lone other one coming in 2010 with Kyle Busch, who usually pilots the car Hornish drove to victory lane.
“We had a great car all day long. The Monster Energy No. 54 was just awesome. Adam Stevens made some great calls. I am so blessed that this opportunity came around. It is pretty darn awesome,” Hornish said in victory lane.
The JR Motorsports tandem of Regan Smith and Chase Elliott ended the day in the third and fourth positions. However, Smith ran outside of the top-five for the majority of the race, struggling to find the handle on his No. 7 Chevrolet. Meanwhile, Elliott had a competitive car on the long runs, but took approximately 20 laps to run lap times which were equivalent to the leaders.
Track position proved to be extremely important on Sunday afternoon. Landon Cassill took two tires on a late pit stop, attempting to get some track position after running just outside of the top-10. However, the strategy proved to work as Cassill stayed inside of the top-10 for the duration of the race, earning his second consecutive top-10 finish.
Elliott stretched out his points lead to two markers over Elliott Sadler, who finished fifth after having a tangle with Brian Scott where both drivers simultaneously were loose off of turn four heading onto the frontstretch. Both drivers were able to save their cars, but were not able to advance their positions due to the ground they lost while battling side-by-side.
Michael McDowell finished seventh in his season debut for JGR. McDowell was racing with Hornish and Blaney for the lead throughout the day, and was the lone driver to take the lead besides those two. Chase Pistone finished 14th in his first career Nationwide Series start for Turner Scott Motorsports. Pistone was sent to the back of the pack to begin the race along with Ryan Reed, but was able to capture a solid finish. Austin Theriault also made his Nationwide Series debut at Iowa, and was able to run approximately 10th at certain points during the race. Theriault finished 15th in his first race for JR Motorsports. Cale Conley was running inside of the top-15 early in the race, but started to drop back as his No. 33 car evidently had a tire going down.
Standalone events provide an abundance of opportunities for Nationwide Series drivers. Men such as David Gilliland, Trevor Bayne, Jason Keller, Elliott Sadler, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and other Nationwide Series regulars in the past and present, have been able to lock up race wins during standalone events.
This weekend, the NASCAR Nationwide Series will hit the 7/8-mile track in Newton, Iowa – the Iowa Speedway. Since holding its first Nationwide Series event in 2009, the Iowa Speedway has had five different winners in eight events. Stenhouse Jr. dominated the speedway in 2011 and 2012, winning three straight races. However, there are only two drivers who have won a Nationwide Series race at Iowa that are entered in this weekend’s spectacle. Ryan Blaney and James Buescher also have won Camping World Truck Series events at Iowa, and Chase Elliott scored a K&N Pro Series East victory once at Iowa.
Elliott Sadler, coming off of his first win with Joe Gibbs Racing after joining the organization in 2013, is looking to use his momentum to the No. 11 team’s advantage. Sadler scored a victory at Iowa in 2012, and has been a contender for the win in all six events he has run at the track. He was inside of the top-five in the first two practice sessions to begin the weekend, but was eighth in the third practice and 16th in Saturday’s final practice.
Chase Elliott currently leads the Nationwide Series points standings after nine events. Elliott, 18, participated in his high school graduation ceremony on Saturday morning, causing him to miss final practice. However, he ran a total of 144 laps in the first three practices, and paced two of those three sessions. Elliott’s time of 23.236 seconds during the third practice was the fastest lap recorded throughout the weekend, and might be poised to win his third event of the year.
Brian Scott is still looking for his first career win. With an opportunity weekend, Scott might be able to lock up the victory at Iowa. Scott was quickest in second practice, yet he has finished 6th or worse in seven Iowa starts without any laps led.
Dylan Kwasniewski swapped over to the No. 42 car for Turner Scott Motorsports as Kyle Larson is in Charlotte where he ran the Sprint Showdown on Friday evening. Kwasniewski will be in the car Larson usually pilots during each of the Nationwide Series standalone events. Moreover, Kwasniewski will be paired up with Larson’s crew chief, Scott Zipadelli, rather than his usual crew chief, Pat Tryson. The pair was able to pace final practice with a time of 23.320 seconds. Kwasniewski has just one top-10 finish to start his rookie year in NASCAR’s second-tier division, and a weekend without the Cup Series regulars could lead him to a solid finish.
Sam Hornish Jr. is looking to get his first win for JGR this weekend. Hornish made his debut for the No. 54 team at Talladega, scoring the pole award in his first Nationwide Series race since Homestead at the end of the 2013 season. Hornish has been consistently inside of the top-13 throughout the weekend, and had the fastest 10 consecutive laps average in final practice at 130.371 mph.
Here are some notables for the Get to Know Newton 250 at Iowa:
- Chad Boat returns in his family-owned No. 84 car. Boat was outside of the top-15 in each of the first three practices, but was fifth in final practice.
- AustinTheriault is making his Nationwide Series debut this weekend driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports. He was 18th or worse in each of the first three practices, but ended the final session in the third position.
- Ryan Ellis is driving the No. 46 car for The Motorsports Group after running the Camping World Truck Series event for FDNY Racing on Friday evening.
- Matt DiBenedetto, who usually drives the No. 46 car, has moved over to the No. 40 Chevrolet since Josh Wise is in Charlotte after making the Sprint All-Star Race due to winning the fan vote.
- Hal Martin is making his season debut for TriStar Motorsports in the No. 44 car. Martin ran the first 10 races for the team last year, but sat out all but two races after that.
- Caleb Roark is making his Nationwide Series debut for SS Green Light Racing in the No. 55 Chevrolet in conjunction with Viva Motorsports. Roark has five previous starts in the Camping World Truck Series with a best finish of 19th at Martinsville in 2011.
- Ryan Gifford is making his first of two scheduled starts for Biagi-DenBeste Racing. He has been inside of the top-20 in each of the four practice sessions as he prepares to start his second Nationwide Series event.
- Cale Conley returns to the Richard Childress Racing No. 33 Chevrolet for his fourth start of the season. Conley has two top-15 finishes this year, and has had a respectable weekend – running inside of the top-20 in each practice session.
The Get to Know Newton 250 can be seen on ESPN on Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. ET.
Chase Elliott, 18, is trying to do something rather rare. Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, currently holds the drivers points lead in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. In doing so, Elliott has become the youngest driver to lead the points in NASCAR's second tier division.
After not being sure whether or not he would have a job come 2014, Elliott has made the most of his opportunity with JR Motorsports. Through the first seven races, the Georgia native has won back-to-back events. However, he is still in high school. Elliott is set to graduate from his private Christian high school in approximately a month, yet his priorities are straighter than most high school seniors.
Elliott spoke with Speedway Digest for an exclusive interview on Tuesday afternoon about his education, his future in racing with JR Motorsports and Hendrick Motorsports, his early success this season and more.
Q: How do you manage school with your racing career? Has it been overwhelming for you?
A: No, it hasn’t been really overwhelming. There have been years in the past where we have done just as much racing as we are doing right now. I was still in school then too. I have been fortunate to go to a school where they work with me on this, and they allow me to go race. It has been that way for a few years now. At this point in school, there’s not a ton going on right now, so it has been a pretty good balance I feel like.
Q: What was the reaction from everyone that you know when you walked into school following your back-to-back wins over the past few weeks?
A: Honestly, it really hasn’t been any different. I don’t want it to be. I feel like I’m going to school like everybody else is, and there is nothing needed to lose sight of that.
Q: How much time have you been able to spend at the shop since you are always in school?
A: Zero percent as of right now. The (JR Motorsports) shop is located in North Carolina, and I’m located in Georgia, so we’re in two different places right now.
Q: A lot of people have said that once you graduate, you’re going to be even more focused on racing. How much of your concentration on your driving has been lost due to going to school?
A: I don’t know it has been lost honestly. I think going to school is a benefit for me. Hopefully, after school it will improve, so I will be able to put some more focus to racing. But I don’t feel like it has been a hindrance by any means. I think it has been a good balance to this point, and this is a point and time in my life which I don’t want to rush through it. It is a time you don’t get back, and I want to enjoy it while I am still here.
Q: There have been a few other drivers that attempt to race and go to college. Is that something you plan on doing on a part-time basis while having a primary focus on racing?
A: I’m honestly not sure right now. At this point, my focus right now is to finish up (high) school during the week and focusing on racing on the weekends. I’m not sure what the future holds. We will have to see.
Q: With such a hectic schedule, how do you find time to relax?
Yeah, it has been okay. I feel like obviously the weekends are busy, but I have been able to enjoy a little bit of time away from everything which I think in a way is good and bad at the same time. It kind of allows me to be away and enjoy school while it is still here, finish up school strong and try to enjoy my time. Like I said – time is something you don’t get back, and it is what you need to make the most of.
Q: What did you learn in your nine Truck Series starts last year that you have taken over to the Nationwide Series?
A: I think just laps. That was probably the biggest thing I can take from that - going to race tracks that we are going to be visiting here in the next few weeks that we ran last year in the Truck Series. It’s a completely different world from the Truck Series side. But hopefully, we can take a little bit of what we did last year and hopefully go forward to be competitive in Nationwide Series races and be a lot better there.
Q: You’ve been having a lot of early success at tracks which you have never raced at previously. What do you do to prepare to go to all of the different tracks since you can’t test?
A: We actually can’t test at all. Unless it is a test that is NASCAR sanctioned, we are not allowed to go with the team. The best that you can do is watch videos, and just learn from the guys around you. I have some great teammates in Regan (Smith), Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and Kevin (Harvick) as well. Those guys are obviously very, very knowledgeable, and they have shared that with me up to this point. I hope they continue to strive with the great support the guys at the shop give. It is not something I want to pass up.
Q: What has been the biggest key to your early success this year?
A: I think the biggest thing is just having a good group of guys, being paired with the right people and being at a great organization like JR Motorsports. Honestly, I feel like NAPA Auto Parts has given us a great opportunity to do things like they need to be done, and being able to do that at a place like JRM has been as good as it gets. Some folks really stepped up this off-season I felt like, and just from what I see coming from the outside looking in last year, those guys got really close. I think during the off-season, they made a lot of changes – hopefully for the better. It is still really early in the year, so we definitely don’t want to get ahead of ourselves, and be happy with what we have done because there is still a lot of racing left. There is definitely a plus side that you can take from these first seven weeks, but at the same time – there is still racing left. So much improving needs to get done for us to be exactly where we need to be, and compete at the level I feel like we need to be at each weekend. We just need to keep trying to get better, and hopefully we can improve a little bit this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Being the youngest driver to lead the standings in the Nationwide Series, do you feel like you can win the championship as a rookie this year?
A: Leading the points right now is like having the best batting average on opening day, so it is kind of irrelevant at this point in the season. We just need to make sure we keep taking it a week at a time, and not get caught up in that. It is too early for that, and we will focus on it when it comes time (to do so).
Q: A lot of people have discussed drivers rushing up to the Cup Series at a young age. What do you believe you need to prove in order to show that you can race for victories in Cup?
A: Like I said, I’m not in a rush to do it. I feel like I don’t need to be in a rush. I’m 18 and there is no need to do that right now. I have an opportunity right now, and if I can make the most of it now, I feel like the future will figure itself out.
Q: When do you believe you will be ready to race in the Sprint Cup Series?
A: I really don’t know. Like I said, it’s not anything I am concerned with. It is not my call. I am going to go keep doing what we are doing right now and focus on the situation that we are in, and race in the Nationwide Series. It is not something to get caught up in. We just have to focus on what we have going on right now. There is no need to think about it.
Q: How do you feel all of this attention from the media and fans has affected your personality?
A: I just want to be the same person I have always been. I want to focus on winning races. That is what I always tried to do, and I feel like you have to always do that.
Q: What is the biggest difference between working with Greg Ives compared to Lance McGrew?
A: It is tough to say. Both of those guys are great in different areas. I think both guys are really smart. I felt like Lance did a good job, and we had fun working with him, winning some races. I enjoyed that. It was great to work with him, and Lance is still a good friend of mine. I still talk to him a pretty good bit. Working with Greg has been great too. I’m still getting to know Greg. I know him for a few months now, so I feel like we have a lot of growing to do. I feel like we can still improve our communication though and make our relationship better.
Q: Growing up, did you ever imagine that you would be so successful so rapidly?
A: At the end of the season, I was going into a group that won races before, and those guys are capable of doing it. I figured it was up to me to get it done and give feedback to make the cars go faster. I need to try to give good information after the races so we can get better for next week. I feel like if I do my job for those guys, we can get better and win some more races
Q: What do you need to improve upon as a driver?
A: Anything and everything, man. There is always room for improvement in all aspects, and I feel like we need to try to do that each weekend. Hopefully, we can do that this weekend at Richmond.
Q: Do you believe that you are a better racer at the moment over your competitors which are in your age group?
A: No, I don’t think so. We’re all setting out to do the same thing, and their goal is to win the race. Obviously, you hope you do better than the next guy, but I think everybody is on such an even playing field right now with the way racing is, the setups on these cars and the tech process. These cars are very equal. At this point, I feel like everyone is on a leveled playing field, and I think all of those guys are capable of getting the job done at any given point honestly if things go their way. You hope things go your way each weekend, but I feel like all of those guys can definitely get the job done.
Q: What is it like to not only race against some of the Sprint Cup Series stars and work with them, but beating them in a division which they have dominated?
A: I think it has been good to have those guys around for sure. There is a lot that can be learned from them. I hope to continue to race with those guys on a week-to-week basis. I feel like we are capable of doing it. We just need to make sure we keep improving and taking advantage of off-weeks like this past one. It’s great to race those guys, and I hope we can race with them more throughout the year.
Q: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seen with you in victory lane during your two wins. What has he done for you that has helped you become a better racer?
A: He has been a great mentor honestly. Dale has a lot of experience and he is obviously a successful car owner as well as a driver. He has been around. He knows how to make things work. He is one of the best guys this year on the Cup Series side. I feel like having him on our side has been great. Just having his personality is good to have, and I am just glad to have him around.
Q: What advantage do you feel like JR Motorsports has given you that has helped you be such a success early in the season?
A: It is about having good people around you, and I feel like having a good atmosphere is big. They have that over there, and we just can’t be content with where we are. Our competition is always trying to get better, and we just need to make sure we are doing the same.
Q: During the off-season, you originally didn’t have a ride. Then, you signed on with JR Motorsports thanks to NAPA. Discuss how you guys were able to sign NAPA to a contract.
A: It was a little bit of a long process. We went to meet with those guys, and when we came back, they said they wanted to support our program. From there, we moved forward. That is how it really all came about.
Q: How long is your contract for?
A: As of right now, we are planning on running this year and next year in the Nationwide Series. Beyond that, we will see what happens.
Q: Who has been the biggest influence on your career?
A: There are a lot of guys. Obviously, my dad has had a major role in it. He has been able to go to a lot of races, and we’ve been able to do a lot of races with him over the past five years, especially in late models. There are a lot of guys other than him that have helped a lot too. We have been fortunate to have some good folks on our side, and we are definitely fortunate to have those guys behind us. It has been fun to go racing with them.
Q: What has it been like to work with Rick Hendrick? How much of an influence has he had on your season so far in helping develop your skills?
A: Well, had it not been for him, we wouldn’t be racing this season. All of these opportunities and everything that I have done this past year has been due to him. I really owe it all to him, and had it not been for him, I wouldn’t be racing this weekend at Richmond. It is all thanks to him and what he has done for us. It means a lot to me.
Q: Does it ever cross your mind that you could possibly be Jeff Gordon’s replacement going down the road?
A: No, not really. I don’t think it is anything to be caught up in. Jeff can still get the job done on any given weekend, and he is a guy that is still in his prime. He is still in his prime in my book. Like I said before about going Cup Series racing – it is not anything to worry about, or even think about at this point.
Q: As a kid, what is one memory from your dad’s career that has stuck with you as motivation to replicate what he did?
A: I remember a little bit of the Brickyard win. That was cool to be a part of and see during the Evernham days. Those guys went out and had a lot of success in a short amount of time, so I think that’s what I look back on. It is definitely cool to have that experience in the house.
Q: What is the hardest part about jumping from division to division as you climbed through the ranks?
Well, it kind of depends on which stuff it is. All of them are tough steps. As you move up and do different things, it definitely doesn’t get any easier. You kind of have to keep that in mind, but you can’t lose track of what your goal is. I don’t care what you are racing – your goal is always pretty similar. I know I have the right mind set, and I’m not sure what the next step will be or where it is going to lead. But for me, I just need to try to focus on what we have going on and do a better job each weekend and try to get a little better.
Q: Going through all those divisions, do you feel like you rushed through the ranks since you didn’t stay in a division for more than a year?
A: I don’t think so. I think that is always a good thing to do if you can. We have had some great sponsors to do it and to run different cars. I think there are many different things you can gain on any given week, and we have been able to do that for the last several years.
Q: Last year when you won in Canada, you had a scuffle with Ty Dillon. Are you worried that people judge you based on that incident and say you are too aggressive?
A: I’m really not sure. I feel like that was definitely a race where we had a fast truck that day. It was good to get the win, but at the same time – I still have a lot of maturing to do and definitely that day. You definitely have to be mindful of the decisions you make. I felt like at the time, trying to go for the win was probably a move a lot of guys would have made, but I should’ve been a little smarter about it.
Chase Elliott, 18, is already climbing through the NASCAR ranks at an unbelievable pace. He is truly ahead of the game, especially for someone that is still in high school.
Elliott, the son of former NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Bill Elliott, might just be what the NASCAR world has been looking for. He is aggressive, smart and mature - all of which he has learned thanks to his hard work and determination. Sure, there are other drivers out there around his age group in the Nationwide Series such as Dylan Kwasniewski and Ryan Reed, but they are not having early success like Elliott.
However, even while becoming the youngest driver to win back-to-back Nationwide Series races in the history of the division, Elliott still has plenty to learn. Due to his success, rumors have initiated about Elliott's immediate future. Currently, the Dawsonville, Ga. native is leading the NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers points standings while racing for JR Motorsports. Think about it this way - Elliott has won two races, outraced his teammates, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and Regan Smith as well as outracing Sprint Cup Series regulars which usually dominate in the sport's second tier division.
JR Motorsports has an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports, one of the most proficient teams in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. However, the team does most of their work in-house as their alliance is mainly for Hendrick's engine program. Moreover, Elliott is winning in equipment which former Sprint Cup Series driver, Smith, has only won in four times in 41 events since Homestead in 2012. What makes Elliott's early success so magnificent?
Well, he has done things the old fashion way. He worked his way up through the ranks at a rapid pace, but did so by winning in everything he raced in. That is how he landed a deal with one of, if not the, most successful team in modern-day NASCAR.
Even though the season is still young, Elliott's points lead is obviously not a fluke. He has Smith's former crew chief, Greg Ives, atop the pit box, and they seem to be clicking rather well. Not only has Elliott been contending for wins, but he has finished inside of the top-10 in each race since Daytona where he made his Nationwide Series debut. Clearly, he has the talent to get the job done. But does it mean he should go to the Sprint Cup Series next season?
It is extremely unlikely that Elliott will be full-time in the Cup Series next season. If he were to win the Nationwide Series title as a rookie, it will be one of the most abundant accomplishments which have been achieved in the modern-era of stock car racing. However, he will still need another season in NASCAR's second tier series just to show he can make even fewer mistakes before he goes to NASCAR's largest stage. Thus, it will enable him to be extremely competitive right away.
Moreover, Elliott will be entitled to race in a Hendrick Motorsports car in the Cup Series if they opt to go that route. The problem is - NASCAR only enables four entries per team, and they can also enter a fifth car for a handful of races under Hendrick Motorsports ownership for a rookie driver. This would be the ideal situation for Elliott. It will enable him to still race full-time in the Nationwide Series for JR Motorsports, and it will also let him get adjusted to the larger, more powerful vehicles in NASCAR's top division. Previously, team owner, Rick Hendrick, has stated that Elliott has tested Cup Series cars, and actually ran times as competitive as four-time champion, Jeff Gordon. That's pretty impressive at his age.
Elliott is rumored to replace one of the four drivers at HMS in the near future. Specifically, Jeff Gordon or Kasey Kahne.
Gordon has stated that he is considering retirement. However, he has done so since having back problems several years ago. It is likely, however, that he will call it quits within the next dozen years or so. But with success like he has had already in 2014, putting a close on a Hall of Fame career should be no where near in the sights of NASCAR's active wins leader.
Kahne's case is a lot different from Gordon. He entered Hendrick Motorsports with hopes of contending for championships. Sure, he has made the Chase for the Sprint Cup in both years that he has driven for HMS, but he has been extremely inconsistent. To start this year, Kahne only has two top-10 finishes in eight races, and four finishes of 22nd or worse. That is not what HMS is about. With each of the Hendrick drivers seeing success other than a Kahne, a driver change might occur in the foreseeable future. Before he joined HMS, most believed that Kahne would certainly be winning more races than he did when he was with Evernham Motorsports (which developed into Richard Petty Motorsports). However, consistency has always been a problem for Kahne since joining the Sprint Cup Series back in 2004. His contract runs up at the end of the 2015 season, as does Elliott's contract with his sponsor, NAPA.
It is possible that if Kahne does not show he is a title contender this year, Elliott can replace him at the start of the 2016 season. However, if Kahne resigns with the organization once his contract expires, Elliott might end up with a team which has an alliance with HMS. This would give him the option of racing with HScott Motorsports which is what Austin Dillon did last year as he prepared to race for Richard Childress Racing on a full-time basis in 2014. It is unlikely that Elliott would race for another organization that has an alliance with HMS which include Stewart-Haas Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates. But anything can happen from now and then.
Let's face it - Hendrick is not going to give up on Elliott. He is going to be a champion if he keeps this up. He is still in school, and once he graduates, his focus will be on racing and racing only.