With title in sight, Hornish Jr. faces uncertainty
September 21, 2013, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com
SPARTA, Ky. -- Looking for his first NASCAR Nationwide Series championship this year, series points leader Sam Hornish Jr. is also searching for something else as he continues to pile up top-five finishes -- a job for 2014.
Following a fourth-place finish in Saturday's Kentucky 300, a result made possible by a brilliant save and recovery after nearly spinning out on Lap 186, the driver confirmed he's not under contract to drive the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford next year.
"It's not a fun thing to think about or talk about," Hornish said after climbing from his car on pit road at Kentucky Speedway. "It's on your mind a little bit, but once you get in the car, you try to take care of business on the track.
"It'll all make sense," he added. "It's not a performance issue, it's a sponsorship issue. Once it settles out and you see what happens with these sponsors … it'll make sense. It's nothing that we've done wrong on the race track."
The driver has an extensive history with team owner Roger Penske. Of Hornish's 93 career Nationwide Series starts, all but one have come with Penske Racing. This is his second consecutive full-time Nationwide Series season in the No. 12 Ford, and his three full-time seasons in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series were all in a Penske car.
Prior to his NASCAR career, the former open-wheel standout had driven in IndyCar for Penske's team from 2004-07.
Hornish's search for a ride comes during the homestretch of his most successful NASCAR season to date. In 27 races this year, the driver has one win, 13 top-fives and 21 top-10s. He's led the Nationwide Series points standings for six consecutive weeks, and his lead over second-place Austin Dillon is 15 points with six races remaining in 2013.
"Our focus is going to continue to be on winning this championship," Hornish said.
His points lead remained intact this weekend thanks to that save on one of the final restarts. It may have been the top highlight in a race full of them, from restarts fanning out to four-wide to late passes that left mere inches between vehicles speeding around the tri-oval at nearly 180 mph.
In second place in the waning laps, Hornish Jr. wiggled hard while trying to catch the No. 22 Ford of eventual winner Ryan Blaney. The car dipped low onto the apron after getting loose, then shot up to the top of the track before Hornish straightened it out before hitting the wall -- or before being hit by the drivers on the top line.
A caution flag came out on the next lap when Parker Kligerman's Toyota was sent hard into the outside wall after contact from Reed Sorenson, and Hornish regrouped on the final restart. His No. 12 weaved in and out of traffic over the final nine laps to gain three spots and get back into the top five.
"I didn't expect it to be that loose," Hornish said. "We got aggressive there and had to save it, but thankfully salvaged a decent night."
Hornish's near-spin almost took out Blaney, who was driving Penske's other Nationwide Series car -- the 22. The victory for Blaney was his first in the series, and he became the fourth driver to win in that vehicle this year, joining Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and AJ Allmendinger.
The 19-year-old Blaney is a regular in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, and he's also a Penske Racing developmental driver. With a seat that appears to be opening up next year, Blaney nearly sounded like a man going through a job interview following his victory -- a victory which would help his case should the team consider promoting the driver.
"You never know what's going to happen in the offseason," Blaney said when asked if he anticipated driving for Penske in the Nationwide Series next year. "(This win) definitely doesn’t hurt. It would be a privilege to be able to run for this 22 team, or even the 12 car for that matter. They are both running so strong, with Sam leading the driver points and (the 22) leading the owner points.
"It would be a privilege to run for (crew chief) Jeremy (Bullins) full time. Hopefully we can make that happen in '14. I really hope so."