NNS: Sam Hornish Jr. rides again at Talladega

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An opportunity is still an opportunity, even if it isn’t exactly the one you may be looking for.

Sam Hornish Jr. narrowly lost out on last year’s NASCAR Nationwide Series championship to Austin Dillon, and a lack of sponsorship forced him to leave Team Penske.

No doubt he’d like to have a full-time ride, especially in the Sprint Cup Series, where he ran full-time from 2008 to 2010.

Instead, he has a part-time Nationwide drive – but it’s definitely primo. He has a seven-race run with Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 54 Toyota that’s normally run by Kyle Busch, and his first go-round in the Monster Energy-backed machine comes this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

Since last fall’s season finale at Homestead-Miami, Hornish has kept busy. He and his wife now have a third child, and on the track, he filled in for an injured Denny Hamlin in the March Sprint Cup race at Fontana (he finished 17th in Hamlin’s No. 11 FedEx Toyota).

But now comes the chance to capitalize on running with some of the best equipment in the NNS.

“I have to say that you really would think that it felt like a very long time since Miami being that it’s closing in on six months, but the fact of having a third child…and also switching teams, it’s seemed to go by very fast,” he said yesterday at ‘Dega.

“I really feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to get my foot in the door at JGR, to be able to be in the Monster Energy car, to have a sponsor that makes a product that I use on a daily basis and I feel like it’s just very exciting.”

Hornish was 12th and 13th on the time sheets in yesterday’s two Nationwide practices on the 2.66-mile oval. Qualifying will take place later this evening at 6:40 p.m. ET.

As for his goals at ‘Dega, Hornish is hoping to get to know his JGR compatriots even further.

“I’ve gone to a few races starting off the season [and] had the opportunity to listen to Kyle and [crew chief] Adam Stevens work together and this is — I feel like a lot of ways the practice, the qualifying and the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race — is me getting to know the team and all of those things,” he said yesterday.

“[I’m] just super excited about the opportunity that I’m given and had a lot of fan support about how much people say they want to see me back in the car full-time – and believe me, I want to be in it.”

Hornish noted differences between how JGR and Penske go about their operations in the Nationwide Series, with the former housing their NNS program in a separate building while Penske has their entire stock car program in the same building.

However, Hornish believes there’s nothing lacking at JGR, which had its No. 54 car battle with Penske’s No. 22 machine in a thriller for last year’s owner’s championship (Penske won out by a single point).

“At Penske there’s a little bit more of that trickle-down effect from the Cup side,” he explained. “But, I feel like when you look at the strength that JGR has had for so long in the Nationwide Series I don’t feel like there’s nothing lacking there other than maybe needing more space to be able to throw everybody together if they wanted to do that.

“When I look at the cars, I feel like there’s definitely differences in people’s mindsets as far as what’s important to be fast and the big thing for me is this is still going to be my first time in a JGR Nationwide car when I go out there this weekend.”

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”