News & Media

Hornish ready to put newfound knowledge to use

February 12, 2012, David Caraviello,

The Nationwide Series race that had the biggest influence on Sam Hornish Jr. last season wasn't his breakthrough victory at Phoenix. It wasn't even an event he was competing in. It was a contest at Las Vegas in which the former Indianapolis 500 champion watched from the pit box of Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, with his ears tuned into the scanner and his eyes and mind open wide. The No. 22 team struggled early, they sped on pit road, they let a tire get away during a stop. But in the end they were in contention to win it, eventually finishing third.

"They never got upset. And with 20 laps to go, he's leading the race," Hornish remembered. "You wonder, how do I learn to be more like that?"

"It was having the opportunity last year to sit back, to see the things that I could do better, how I could be better."



Hornish asked himself such questions on more than one occasion in 2011, when his NASCAR struggles and the sport's sponsorship squeeze combined to leave him with just a 13-race Nationwide slate. He made the most of it, finishing in the top 10 almost half the time and holding off Keselowski and Carl Edwards on late restarts to notch his first NASCAR victory at Phoenix in November. But his stock-car education took place more off the track than on, and although Hornish had extra time to spend with his family, he also used it to soak up all the knowledge he could from his teammates -- and make himself a better stock-car driver in the process.

"It was having the opportunity last year to sit back, to see the things that I could do better, how I could be better, and really most importantly, to watch what Brad and Kurt [Busch] were doing," he said. "Even when you're sitting there, going to a Cup race listening to the scanner, listening to the radio, you're figuring out, how do I be more like them to be able to make myself better? I picked out the good parts and put them to use for myself."

It was the first time he'd been able to undertake that kind of serious reflection, despite being in NASCAR full time since 2008. Most of those campaigns were spent in the Cup Series, where Hornish struggled to find his footing, amassing just two top-fives and never finishing better than 28th in final points.

"It was the first time I could really sit back and look and see what they're doing, how they're trying to figure out how to make it better," he said. "Because usually, you're out there on the track at the same time, and you don't usually have that opportunity in the Cup Series. It's kind of hard to go watch the Nationwide stuff a lot, because either you're having to debrief, or you're having a sponsor thing to do. It's something I wish I would have done in 2007, but I don't know if I would have gotten as much out of it in 2007 as what I did in 2011."

This year, he gets the chance to put all that knowledge to use. Sponsorship from Alliance Truck Parts and the Wurth Group has come through to allow Hornish to run full time in the Nationwide Series in 2012, where with a stronger support staff he hopes to contend for the championship. Other than crew chief Chad Walter, last year's crew around the No. 12 car was something of a patchwork bunch, people borrowed from test teams or wherever else Penske could find them. "It was kind of an after-hours activity to go racing," Hornish said.

Now, there's a new car chief, a new engineer, a new shock specialist, and a reshuffled pit crew. Hornish calls it the best group he's had around him, another fact that bolsters his hopes of building on his strong runs from a year ago.

"I don't want to be too optimistic about it ... but I feel like if we don't finish in the top three in the championship, I'm going to be really disappointed," he said. "I feel like we've got all the right opportunities. If Brad and I work together, try to keep our program moving forward like we did last year, I feel like there's no reason we shouldn't be able to [do that.] And at the end of the day, I'd like to compete for the owners' championship, as well."

Lofty goals indeed for a driver who admittedly was just trying to keep his head above water in NASCAR prior to last season. But Hornish went Cup racing full time in 2008 with only 11 Nationwide starts behind him, and at a time when NASCAR was scaling back testing due to cost concerns. Car owner Roger Penske blames himself for what happened next.

"Sam and I got together five or six years ago and said, 'Let's try to win Indianapolis, let's try to win [an IndyCar] championship, and then we're going to go NASCAR racing.' We shook hands, we made a deal, and unfortunately, I might have brought him in at the wrong level," Penske said. "He needed some more experience, because the testing rules -- that's always been one of my complaints, we don't get enough testing to bring young guys in to learn this sport. But Sam will have a full-time ride this year ... and that's going to be a great team."

Despite his struggles in NASCAR, Hornish didn't go back into open-wheel racing. Even now, he says he still has no desire to return to IndyCar. "This is where I want to be," he said. He came to NASCAR because he wanted to be competitive, which his No. 12 Nationwide team shows all signs of becoming. But even with that, some unfinished stock-car business still remains.

"I love racing in the Nationwide Series. You get to run against a lot of the Cup drivers, you get to run against the guys you normally wouldn't get to run against in the Cup Series," Hornish said. "But ultimately, I want to get back in the Sprint Cup Series. To be able to have an opportunity to head back in that direction is a great feeling for me."