After battling Austin Dillon for last season’s Nationwide Series championship, Sam Hornish Jr. ultimately fell short by a mere three points.
Dillon won the title and got a promotion to Sprint Cup for 2014.
Hornish, however, was essentially laid-off from Penske Racing when enough sponsorship dollars couldn’t be found to keep his NNS team going for 2014.
But rather than mope or throw a pity party, the 34-year-old Hornish will indeed be racing in 2014, driving in at least seven NNS races as he and Kyle Busch team up to share a ride in the Joe Gibbs Racing-owned No. 54 NNS Toyota.
It’s not a full-time ride, but Hornish feels fortunate he has another job and he’s still racing.
Even with the departure from the Penske organization after a decade-long association that included one of his three IndyCar championships and a victory in the 2006 Indianapolis 500, Hornish holds no grudges – even though some uninformed critics felt otherwise.
“Cleaning up my office (at Penske Racing) and packing up all the stuff, it felt weird,” Hornish told MotorSportsTalk. “There were some people that expressed a little bit of bitterness towards me about it, but I said, ‘Hey, I didn’t quit. I didn’t have a job anymore. What do you want me to do?’
“It’s just like anything else in life, you’re never going to make everybody happy. I’m proud of the decade-long relationship with Penske Racing and Roger, and I hope that no matter what happens throughout as the future goes, I can always say that not only was he my boss but he was my friend as well.”
While Hornish could have stayed on with Penske in a different capacity, perhaps as a test driver or another role, when the JGR offer came up, he had to take it.
“I told Roger from the get-go that I was going to do this,” Hornish said. “I told him, ‘I hope you understand where I’m at and all those things.’ After we had an opportunity to talk about it, I feel like he felt much better about it.”
While this will essentially put him back to square one by racing a part-time schedule, Hornish is okay with that. The key is just to be back behind the wheel.
He also hasn’t given up on his hopes to return to a full-time ride in Sprint Cup some day.
“I want to be successful and I want to run up towards the front of no matter what I do,” he said. “I’m really excited to get into a JGR car, starting out on the Nationwide side.
“I want to go Cup racing in the future, but I’m only going to do that if I think that it’s with an organization I can run in the top-15 regularly. That means I want to do it with someone I can hopefully get into the Chase with. There are a lot of things that can bias that, but I know that being with an organization like JGR that has great sponsors that tend to be on the car year in and year out, to be with a company like Monster Energy and what they’re brand is … this is the right place for me.”
Hornish will start with seven races in the No. 54 Toyota and see where things go. His first race tentatively isn’t until April 25 at Richmond.
Even though that may seem like a long time, Hornish looks on the bright side. When asked about how he thinks NASCAR’s new qualifying format will play out, Hornish said with a laugh, “The great part about my job is this year is I’ve got eight weeks to watch everybody else do it and screw it up, and hopefully I’ll get it right.”
Until then, he’ll continue to immerse himself in the JGR culture and way of doing things, while also enjoying the latest addition to his family. After two daughters, Hornish and wife Crystal welcomed son Samuel III into the world on Feb. 8.
With Juan Pablo Montoya’s decision to return to Indy cars after a seven-season stint in NASCAR, as well as Cup drivers Kurt Busch and AJ Allmendinger planning to compete in this year’s Indianapolis 500, Hornish was asked whether he’d ever consider going back to the open-wheel world.
After all, he experienced a much greater level of success in sleek Indy cars – three championships and a win in the 2006 Indianapolis 500 – than he has in NASCAR stock car racing.
Hornish quickly downplays the possibility.
“The last time I had serious thoughts about it was in 2011,” Hornish said. “That ended after about the fifth lap at the Las Vegas race (when his friend Dan Wheldon was killed in a horrific wreck) and I haven’t thought much about it since then.”
Plus, there’d be very little to gain for Hornish to return to IndyCar.
“I feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to over there,” Hornish said. “There was a reason I left. The reason wasn’t monetary, it was a challenge (in NASCAR). Yeah, there might be more of a challenge going back there now because I’ve been out of it for seven years.
“I just feel like what would be the point to where you could possibly tarnish a career that you won in almost 20 percent of the events you ran and won half the full-time championships that you ran when you focused on it.
“And then you look at the safety fact of it, too. I got a lot of people that I need to take care of in my life, and racing in general for me is probably a little bit of a selfish thing because I probably don’t need to do it, but I want to. So, I have to sit back and think about as far as my family life goes, everything worked out exactly the way it needed to for this year.”
There’s one other thing, as well.
Even when he was tearing up the IndyCar circuit, Hornish admits he never felt he got the respect he deserved.
“When I started racing over there, (people said) ‘You’re not good enough.’ When I won the championship (people said), ‘You didn’t have any competition. Wait till Penske comes along.’ You went with Penske (and people said), ‘Well, that wasn’t enough competition, wait for Ganassi.’ Okay, you almost won again, now it’s about the road courses. Okay, you won a championship with the road courses and you won the Indy 500, now what’s the challenge anymore?”
In a sense, Hornish has found a sense of peace in NASCAR that he didn’t have in Indy cars. And now with the new opportunity with JGR, there’s no looking back or lamenting on what was or what might have been.
“After everything gets calmed down for a couple months, I’m going to go racing,” he said. “It’s a weird thing to say, but it’s all happening kind of for the right reason.
“Call it divine intervention or just the way things worked out, or maybe in my mind I worked things to be able to get myself into this position. I want to be out there racing more, but I’m okay with where I’m at, too.”
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