Sam Hornish Jr. stays positive, patient
March 21, 2014, Eric Johnson for NASCAR.com, NASCAR.com
Last year's Nationwide Series runner-up will run limited schedule with JGR
Ohio’s Sam Hornish Jr. is not afraid of challenges. His walk-off from the open-wheel ranks and his refuge in NASCAR’s rough and tumble Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series tours have been well documented. Yes, it took the three-time IndyCar champion upwards of three years to sort out the burly American stock cars, but it all came together in 2013 when Hornish came within a few precious points of winning the Nationwide driver and owner championships.
However, after the close calls for the Nationwide titles, Hornish found himself without a ride following the 2013 season when his longtime relationship with Team Penske ended. Once again, he was faced with a challenge, and today he is focused on his job as a part-time driver for the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota Camry for Joe Gibbs Racing.
We're still six weeks away from Hornish making his debut for JGR at Talladega, but he was found in the pits at Southern California’s Auto Club Speedway on Friday afternoon. Present to step in and perform a one-off freelance gig should JGR teammate Matt Kenseth’s wife go into labor, Hornish was in a talking mood.
So Sam, word has it that, if need be, you may fill-in for Matt Kenseth in tomorrow’s Nationwide race. True?
"Well, I had planned on coming out here earlier in the year when I had the opportunity to race for JGR and Monster Energy. … I had opportunities to do other things that were probably going to pay me more money this year and probably allow me to gain more notoriety in other ways -- you know by maybe being on the Cup side -- but this gives me the best possible outlet to win races and to put myself up against Kyle Busch and be in the exact same equipment with the same people working on the car and find out exactly where I’m at as far as what I can do better as a driver. I also wanted to come out here and have the opportunity to come to Monster and see their headquarters. And I wanted to come out to the race, so it really worked out well for me. I mean I get to go out to the racetrack this weekend and possibly fill in for Matt."
Picking up on what you just said, I’ve read and heard some things during the offseason where you basically said you didn’t want to take a ride with just any team so that you could be, in your words, "just a race car driver."
"I’ve been a professional race car driver now for, I think I’m going onto the 15th or 16th year. It’s a long time as far as race car drivers go. To go out there just to collect a paycheck doesn’t interest me at all. I want to go out there and have a chance to win. If I can’t win, there’s other things that I can do that are way less stressful. I’m about challenging myself and I’m about putting myself in a position to where I can compete for race wins. … But right now the speculation is really killing me because I’ve been talking about this for four months."
Your first race in the No. 54 car is slated for Talladega on May 3. Talk about a baptism by fire, eh?
"Well, that’s actually one of the best ones because a lot of it is about the first three-quarters of the race getting you to the last quarter. I mean that happens at a lot of places, but the good thing about Talladega is that it’s a spread out weekend where we get three full days of track time. We go practice on one day, qualify the next day and race the next day. So that gives me plenty of time to talk to Adam Stevens, the crew chief, and find out exactly what we’re doing."
And you’ll be doing the Elkhart Lake and Mid-Ohio road course races, correct?
"Well, that goes back to my IndyCar days. When the road courses came about in IndyCar, they became the next challenge for me. That was really the last straw for me because I was like, 'I don’t really have anything more to accomplish here.' … When I came over here to NASCAR it was about getting to learn new things. I hope I can continue my streak because in the last two years that I ran the road courses I haven’t finished any worse than fifth."
So how do you go from losing the 2013 Nationwide series by three points to not having a ride at the end of the year?
"The best part of that is that even if I won the championship I still wasn’t going to have a ride! … It was frustrating, but if I were to have sat down and said, 'Alright, I’m not going to have a job next year, but I’m going to be able to run a couple of races and be able to be in the Monster Energy No. 54 car, that would be great.' From the first meeting I had with the Gibbs guys, I felt really good about it. Whether they knew exactly everything that I wanted to hear or they are on the same page as me, one way or another, I knew it was right."
From an A-plus organization to an A-plus organization, huh?
"Yeah, if you’re going to be somewhere for 10 years like Penske and you had to go somewhere else, there are only two names on that list that you want to be at as far as really having the right caliber of people and equipment to win. To have opportunity to come and work for the coach has been great. Everybody has been telling me, “If not the Captain, go work for the Coach.” It works for me."
You mentioned Kyle Busch a bit earlier. Did you want to come be a part of the team that he has been so successful with? And, to that end, was Kyle cool with you being there?
"From everything that I’ve been told about it, when it came down to the end of the season last year, they said, 'Kyle, what do you think about these three or four drivers coming over to help us?' Kyle said, 'Sam’s the guy to get.' He’s been very gracious to me so far."
It sounds like winning that owner championship would mean a lot. Are you already attuned to that?
"I mean we sat down and talked about that at the end of last year. They lost the owners’ championship by one point and I lost the drivers’ championship by three. So by a grand total of four points, none of us did what we wanted to do last year, so we’re kind of teaming up to see if we can do it all together this year."