Hornish Jr. unsure how he fits into JGR's 2015 plans
August 15, 2014, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com
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LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Joe Gibbs Racing is set to hold a press conference at its Huntersville, North Carolina headquarters on Tuesday to offer an "unprecedented announcement" that will "have impact across four NASCAR racing series."
Sam Hornish Jr., currently driving Kyle Busch's No. 54 JGR Monster Energy Toyota part-time as he looks to secure a full-time ride for 2015, was completely unaware when asked Friday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course if the announcement had anything to do with him.
"They've got an announcement on Tuesday?" Hornish replied. "Well, I didn’t know that. I must not be enough in the loop on that."
Of course, the 2013 Nationwide Series championship runner-up could certainly be playing coy, but if not it continues a trend of Hornish consistently and reluctantly embracing the role as NASCAR's forgotten man, despite being one of its most well-rounded drivers.
With Team Penske minimizing its full-time Nationwide efforts over the offseason to just the one car (the No. 22 car) shared among Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Alex Tagliani, it left Hornish as the odd man out to search for an open seat in a shrinking amount of competitive Nationwide rides. After heavy consideration for smaller, unnamed full-time opportunities, Hornish chose to fill in for Busch when the Sprint Cup Series driver has other weekend obligations that keep him from sitting in the 54, such as this weekend's events at Michigan International Speedway.
The decision puzzled many, but to hear Hornish explain it makes perfect sense.
"It feels great to have made the decision that's going to put me out there with opportunities to win. I've been doing racing long enough and have been very fortunate to win some big races and to have decent contracts along the way that I can do this now just because I want to be a competitor and I don't have to take a full-time ride to make my mortgage payments," said the winner of the 2006 Indianapolis 500. "If I was in a different position financially, that decision wouldn't have been as easy to make, but when I heard that I was going to have the opportunity when JGR called about the 54 car, I was over the moon about it. I felt like there were going to be people that misunderstood along the way but when they saw, hopefully, how I perform (they might change their minds.)
"It's also a good litmus test to put myself up against Kyle, to see how I would run in the same equipment with the same crew chief, because even being a teammate of somebody, until you get the same guys in the car, making the calls and doing adjustments and doing things like that, you just never really know how you stack up and Kyle is obviously a great talent, so to be able to go out there and win in the 54 and run as well as we have, I feel like there hasn't been a race that if things didn't play out a little bit differently, we couldn't have won."
So, to put it bluntly, Hornish's 2014 campaign has to be considered a success thus far, given that his overall goal was to compete for wins in his limited race opportunities.
Despite coming within three points of a Nationwide title a year ago, Hornish won just a single race while competing in all 33 Nationwide events in 2013 while driving the Team Penske No. 12. In just his second race for JGR this year, he won in May at Iowa.
Every race since, the No. 54 has been in contention for an appearance in Victory Lane with Hornish behind the wheel, save for an engine issue at Chicagoland that only allowed him to run seven laps.
Given his familiarity with Mid-Ohio -- he grew up just more than two hours away from here in nearby Defiance, Ohio -- and his on-track exploits that range from go-karts to IndyCars to Mustangs and now Camrys, Hornish almost has to be the favorite to win this weekend, especially considering he's one of a handful of veterans in a field littered with rookies and no full-time Cup drivers. Topping opening practice on Friday with a speed of 95.245 mph certainly didn't hurt his case, either.
If Hornish were to win Saturday's Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN) -- he finished third in last year's event after playing nice with teammate (and eventual race winner) AJ Allmendinger on the final restart -- and continues to compete for wins in the handful of races he has left this year, it'll be tough for teams to not look at him for a full-time ride as they open up over the offseason. Even if that opportunity doesn't come with JGR.
"It's an honor to be here and hopefully with what their plans are, there will be something. I don't know; it looks like there's a lot going on. Whether or not there'll be something full-time for me I don't know, but it'll still come to a decision that I'll have to make at the end of the year," Hornish said. "I'm unfortunately still in a place where there's not an over-abundance of rides out there, at least in competitive equipment."
If he remains without a full-time chance in 2015, Hornish's veteran guile allows him to maintain the perspective necessary to see that continuing to run in the best equipment he can, albeit part-time, is the best way to position himself for the kinds of opportunities he's looking for down the road.
If he has to be in the same situation next year, so be it.
"To tell you the real truth about it, I can say that I wouldn't be overly disappointed if I had to do the same thing next year. And I don't want to say 'had to do' but if I did the same thing, I want people to know that I want to race every weekend and get that opportunity, but I'm really happy with where I'm at and we'll see how things play out. I've had everybody from Monster Energy to JGR, you know all the people that I've gotten to meet, it's been refreshing to get into a different atmosphere and to meet some new people. Everybody has been really good to me and I've had a lot of fun getting to know a whole bunch of new people. Definitely not disappointed at all with the decision I made."