Sam Hornish Jr. 2013 year in review
December 31, 2013, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
The fact that Sam Hornish Jr. was so disappointed with a NASCAR championship runner-up finish says a lot.
The frustration was evident on Hornish’s face as he leaned against his Penske Racing Ford on Homestead-Miami Speedway’s pit road moments after the final checkered flag of the 2013 season.
After turning in the finest season effort of his burgeoning NASCAR career, the 2006 Indy 500 winner was left three painful points shy of his first stock car championship -- just losing out on the Nationwide Series title to Austin Dillon despite a valiant showing in the season finale.
"I wish we could have brought it home," Hornish said, "But this was a great opportunity."
Hornish's struggles in moving directly into NASCAR's premier Sprint Cup Series from 2008-2010 from a triple-championship resume in the IndyCar Series are well documented. But Hornish flourished given the chance to regroup and properly gain experience as a full-time competitor in the Nationwide Series the past two years.
And it culminated with an impressive near-championship run in 2013 that almost ended as well as it started.
Hornish never finished worse than seventh in the first two months of the season -- a run highlighted by a win at Las Vegas and runner-up showings in the Daytona season-opener and again at Auto Club Speedway in March. He led the championship standings for the first seven weeks -- 15 weeks in all.
His 16 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes were a series best and only Dillon (seven) bettered Hornish's four poles. And he led 603 laps -- nearly three times as many laps as he had led before combined.
Hornish was one of only three full-time Nationwide competitors -- not including Dillon -- who won in 2013. And he was ranked either first or second in the standings for all but two weeks on the season.
The problem -- as it so often turns out -- was with the rare off days. Hornish finished worse than 17th place only four times in 33 races. But three of those -- a 34th at Texas, a 32nd at Michigan and a 34th at Indianapolis -- were way off.
"There were a lot of good days and very few bad ones, but when they were bad they were catastrophic," Hornish said after accepting his second place trophy at the season awards banquet.
"But," he added with a smile, "a lot of things learned this year and I had a lot of fun doing it."
The silver lining in his championship near-miss was that he had such high expectations and felt competitively comfortable in a stock car -- at last having a legitimate opportunity to develop, learn and ultimately succeed at a high level.
The irony is that after turning in his best season to date in NASCAR, Hornish received word late season that he needed to look for a new job in 2014. Although Hornish has not revealed his plans about next season, he indicated that he would be open to competing in Nationwide again or returning to Sprint Cup.
And he said in Homestead that he had several offers to ponder.
"The biggest thing for me is not to rush into anything," Hornish said. "As opposed to getting into something I don't even have an outside chance at winning in, I'd rather sit at home. I feel like I've come too far to put myself in a position where I'm just going to bang my head against the wall and not have any opportunity to win."
With his wife Crystal due with the couple's third child in early in 2014, Hornish was understandably both reflective of the year and optimistic about the future.
"I do this because I want to do it, but I'm not going to do it just to say I'm a race car driver," Hornish said, insisting he didn't want to be in an non-competitive situation at this point in his career.
"I guess a lucky and blessed thing to be able to say that. I have a lot of things in my life I'm really happy to have.
"And given the opportunity with the right tools, I think we've shown what we can do."