JGR signs Hornish Jr. for seven races in No. 54
January 06, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com
After months of uncertainty tempered with high hopes and firm expectations, Sam Hornish Jr. was finally able to divulge his 2014 NASCAR plans on Monday -- a seven-race deal to drive the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota in the Nationwide Series.
The significance of the news isn’t just the extension of the three-time IndyCar champion’s stock car career, but that last year’s Nationwide runner-up was able to move from one premier team -- Penske Racing -- to another in JGR. And what that may speak to for the future.
"When you look at where I’ve been for the past 10 years and who I've been associated with there’s only a handful of people you can put in a category with Roger Penske and obviously, Joe [Gibbs], with his faith, and everything that’s represented at Joe Gibbs Racing, I’m super excited to be a part of that organization," Hornish told NASCAR.com on Monday.
"Obviously, I’m still trying to figure out how to get more racing in, but the races I’m scheduled to do will be in top-notch equipment and hopefully give them an opportunity to try to win the owners' championship this year.
Hornish, 34, who will share driving duties with Kyle Busch, makes his JGR debut in the May 3 race at Talladega, Ala. then is scheduled to compete in both Iowa Speedway events, at Chicagoland and Kentucky Speedway and road course races at Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wis.) and Hornish’s hometown Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
In an interesting twist of fate, both Hornish and the No. 54 Toyota he will steer, finished runner-up in the 2013 Nationwide driver and owners' championships, respectively, -- a motivating factor not lost on Hornish.
"We talked about it and we both missed it by less than four points combined so we’re going to go out there and try to do it together this time," said Hornish who lost the driving title to Austin Dillon by three points. The No. 22 Penske Ford (which was driven by several drivers) beat Gibbs’ No. 54 by a single point in the owners' title race. Hornish was one of only three full-time Nationwide drivers to win (Las Vegas) and his 16 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes were both series best.
Hornish acknowledges that competing against Penske may seem a little strange initially considering he spent the last 10 years with the legendary car owner, winning the 2006 Indy 500 and an IndyCar title together before moving to stock cars full-time in 2008.
What started as a part-time opportunity in NASCAR with Penske flourished with several Sprint Cup seasons (2008-2010) and then full-time Nationwide runs in 2012-2013, so Hornish is hopeful that he will be with Gibbs for the long haul as well.
"As far as what the future holds we don’t know," Hornish said. "This is what we are committed to at this point and we’ll kind of see where it goes. From what they’ve told me, they’d like to -- at some point in time -- use me in a bigger role.
"This is, for a lack of a better expression, 'the first date.' My focus this year is to do the best I can in the 54 and for Monster Energy and the races I’ll fill in for Kyle. Outside of that, the great thing about being with a company like Joe Gibbs Racing is that they’ve got a lot going on, you never know how things will play out."
And Hornish speaks from experience.
"A couple years ago I was in this same situation where I was supposed to do a few races (for Penske) and what was supposed to be seven turned into 14 and that turned into a full-time ride," Hornish said.
"I’m not saying any of that is going to happen, but I think that’s one of the things that allowed me to be calm about what has been going on, to try and wait and make sure I was in the right stuff.
"Because when you do get those opportunities you try to work your butt off and make the most of them. There’s a lot of times when you can get the right things to happen and put yourself in the right position for success.
"All that being said," Hornish continued. "I’m still so appreciative to Roger and everybody at Penske Racing for giving me the opportunity they have. Even though the defining aspect of it didn’t work out the way we wanted at the end of last year to move forward, another door opened and if they hadn’t been committed to me this door may not have opened.
"You know, as much as anything, what’s important is having good people around you, and that’s why I felt it necessary to try to continue surrounding myself with good people like this."