Sam Hornish Jr. is leaving the IndyCar Series for a full-time ride in NASCAR, joining the mass exodus of open-wheel stars fleeing to America’s most popular racing series.
The three-time IndyCar champion told The Associated Press he will drive the No. 77 Dodge next season for Penske Racing with Mobil 1 as the sponsor.
“I feel like this is something that is a new and unique challenge for me,” Hornish said Thursday. “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.
He’ll 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, last year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, has been leaning toward moving to NASCAR for some time. But his struggles in making races – he’s failed to qualify for all six Cup races he’s entered – had led many to speculate he might stick with IndyCars another year.
But the failure has made him want it more. Although he called choosing NASCAR “one of the more difficult decisions” he’s ever had to make, Hornish said he has faith he can adapt to stock cars.
“There are so many things that I have elected to do that are a lot easier,” he said. “But 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.
“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.”
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.
Penske could ensure Hornish a spot in the field for the first five races of next season by moving the points currently owned by Busch. The 2004 series champion has a provisional that would lock him into the field 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 will again try to make his Cup debut this weekend. He’s 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.