Long-time Penske driver waits patiently for Sprint Cup ride
Photos from Penske Racing’s greatest moments hang on the walls of the organization, and one of defending NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski is the latest addition. There’s also another from last season, one of the inaugural nascar Nationwide Series event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Sam Hornish Jr. finished second to the younger and more decorated -- by NASCAR standards, anyway -- teammate.
“Like sticking the knife in there,” Hornish said with a wry smile.
That’s Hornish -- a Penske company man to the core. He could have left after last season, and everyone would have understood. He swallowed his pride two years ago and put up with a limited Nationwide schedule, then took over the No. 22 Sprint Cup car last season when AJ Allmendinger was suspended, then was asked to step aside when Joey Logano was hired for 2013. He received some interest from other teams, and no one would have blamed him for breaking ranks.
But there’s something about all those photos on the wall. There’s something about that starched white Penske dress shirt, which seems to fit Hornish as well as anyone save Roger Penske himself. There’s something about the bond built over nine years racing under Penske, through an open-wheel series championship and an Indianapolis 500 crown and a turbulent transition to NASCAR. There’s something about loyalty that led Hornish to stay -- to once again pursue the Nationwide title, and hope another Sprint Cup opportunity comes.
"Whatever I do with this, I want to do it and be competitive with it."
-- Sam Hornish Jr.
“I feel like Roger’s been very loyal to me, I’ve been very loyal to him,” Hornish said. “I want to do things in the right way, and I feel like if we win this championship, that would be great. I feel like there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to do that.”
If there’s any bitterness over being bypassed for the No. 22 Sprint Cup ride, it never shows. Hornish was in the midst of a full Nationwide campaign last July when he got the call -- on the set of a television show, no less -- that Allmendinger had been suspended for failing a random drug test, and he was needed in Daytona immediately for that night’s event. He barely made it, catching a ride to the starting grid during opening ceremonies, and from there began a double-duty stretch that a few times had him competing in different places on the same weekend.
Allmendinger was ultimately released. When the time came to fill the ride for 2013 -- a key hire, given all the turnover the Shell/Pennzoil car had experienced over the previous year -- the team chose Logano, on whose behalf Keselowski had fiercely lobbied. For Hornish, that meant back to the Nationwide tour.
“I was a little bit disappointed, because I want to race on Sunday,” he said. “And I thought that would give me the opportunity to do it. I had a relationship with Shell/Pennzoil when I ran IndyCars. But it didn’t work out, and I had a choice to make: I could sit there and be upset about it and depressed, or I could go on and try to finish the year good. I could try to take care of my teammate and help him out any way that I could for the rest of the season, and that’s what I did. There was nothing I could do to change it at that point and time. The only thing I could do was go out there and make myself look bad.”
Which isn’t Hornish’s style. It helped that former Penske driver Rusty Wallace used his television platform to argue that the Logano hire was a mistake, and that Hornish should have gotten the job. It helped that Hornish finished a career-best fourth in final Nationwide points, and did some testing that aided Keselowski’s quest for the Sprint Cup crown. It helped that some other teams showed interest, even if Hornish ultimately wasn’t willing to make a move.
“We actually had a couple of people talk to us about it, and it’s just a difficult thing,” Hornish said. “I don’t want Roger ever to think I’m out actively searching for something else. He also knows that if he can’t provide me with something that is going to be a good opportunity for me, he’s definitely not going to hold me back from it, either. Whatever I do with this, I want to do it and be competitive with it. I don’t want to just go and find a way to make five grand on a weekend and go home. I’d rather spend the time with my kids.”
Penske still blames himself for not starting Hornish on the Nationwide tour -- as opposed to throwing him directly into Sprint Cup, which produced a forgettable debut season that’s taken the driver a long time to come back from. But there’s been real progress made over the past 18 months, beginning with Hornish’s first national-series race victory, and followed by a genuine championship purist last year. Over the offseason Hornish was paired with new crew chief Greg Erwin, who three times made the Chase for the Sprint Cup with Greg Biffle.
Now, Penske believes Hornish is ready to take the next step. “I said to him, ‘If there’s an opportunity in Cup and you want it (you can have it); but I can tell you one thing: we’re going to give you the best car and the best crew chief we can to run in the (Nationwide) Series this year,’” Penske said. “The goal, I said to him … is to win the championship. Not second or third, it’s to win the championship. I think he’s got the tools and the ability to do it now.”
And if that happens? There are sponsor commitments for a few Sprint Cup races for Hornish this season, and Penske continues to weigh the merits of expanding to three teams. He seriously considered it for this season, given that his former driver Ryan Newman was available before signing a one-year extension with Stewart-Haas. Clearly, much of that hinges on sponsorship availability. But if Hornish does win the Nationwide title, and everything else falls into line?
“I think I’ve got to look at Hornish as the next person,” Penske said. “If he meets the goals that we would expect, and we get the support from the sponsors we have, he could be the next (Sprint Cup) driver.”
For Hornish, that’s the goal. And even after the disappointment of not getting the ride in the No. 22 car, he’s always believed that the best way to get there is by staying exactly where he is.
“At the end of 2010, there were not lot of people fighting for me to have a Cup ride,” he said, referring to his most recent full-time season at NASCAR’s top level. “And at the end of 2012 I had Rusty Wallace on national TV saying I should have a Cup ride -- not only a Cup ride, but a premier Cup ride. So I’m really appreciative of just getting the opportunity to run in the 22 last year. I feel like if I keep my head down, we’re going to take our sponsors like Alliance and Wurth and we’re going to bring new ones on board, and we’re going to get back there.”