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Hornish Jr. makes the most out of short notice

March 23, 2014, Holly Cain, NASCAR.com

Filling in for Denny Hamlin, Sam Hornish Jr. managed to finish 17th at Fontana

FONTANA, Calif. – An hour before the green flag in Sunday’s Auto Club 400, Sam Hornish Jr. was chatting with his former boss Roger Penske in the garage, contemplating what he’d have for lunch and envisioning being first on board the plane home. Then he got a text message.

Hornish’s new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, needed him immediately at Denny Hamlin’s hauler. Originally on hand to substitute for JGR driver Matt Kenseth should his wife Katie go into labor, Hornish instead was unexpectedly tabbed to drive Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota when NASCAR refused to medically clear Hamlin to race.

So while Hamlin was being taken to a nearby hospital to be examined for a severe headache and vision problems, Hornish scrambled into his drivers suit and made it to the starting grid just as the national anthem was starting.

"Once you’re within an hour of the race, you’re thinking it’s not going to happen today," Hornish said. "But it was a great experience to work with these guys and basically get out there and run some laps because it’s been so long since I got in a car. This is the first time I’ve been in a JGR car with the engine running."

It was only the second Sprint Cup start in two years – the last coming at Kansas in April of 2013. He is set to run seven Nationwide Series races for JGR this season, but the first one wasn’t scheduled until May 3 at Talladega, Ala.

After moving to the rear of the 43-car field because of the driver change, Hornish methodically worked his way forward. He was running among the top-10 with 25 laps remaining when his Toyota Camry was tagged from behind by Paul Menard’s Chevrolet.

Hornish somehow managed to collect the car off the wall and salvage it for the remainder of the race scoring a 17th place finish. His JGR teammate Kyle Busch won the race for the second straight year.

"For him to have 45 minutes notice, throw on a fire suit and jump in someone else’s car and take off knowing nothing about the car and not having run a Cup race in a while, it really was a successful day," said crew chief Darian Grubb.

"It was truly impressive. And I think we had a real shot at a top-10 before we got knocked away. He did a great job, can’t even ask for anything better."

Hornish was pleased with the showing and actually frustrated about the accident – something he was confident wouldn’t have likely happened if he had been a fulltime competitor.

The overall outcome was especially encouraging considering his time out of the car and the need to adapt to someone else’s ride.

Hornish joked he needed to stretch out, demonstrating how his shoulders were hunched up for the three hour race  -- "I’ve learned I have broader shoulders than Denny.’"

"But this is the first time I’ve been in a car since Homestead ended last year," Hornish said. "It’s good to knock some of the dust off and run with it. I thought we were going to be able to bring it home nice and shiny with a top-10 out of it, but didn’t get it done today.

"I was really happy that with 20 laps to go we were running as close to the front as we were." Then he smiled, "I imagine with half a practice session we’d be able to run a little bit better."

Hornish said he is hopeful Hamlin will be back in the car at Martinsville, Va. next week – especially considering Hamlin is a four-time winner at the track.

Hamlin was evaluated and released from a local hospital after undergoing tests and a CT scan. He will be further evaluated this week in Charlotte, Joe Gibbs Racing said in a statement.

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