Nascar Nationwide series | Ford EcoBoost 300

Sam Hornish Jr. out to put NASCAR struggles to rest, recapture IndyCar form

 

After five tough years in NASCAR’s two top series, Sam Hornish Jr. reaches the Nationwide series’ Ford EcoBoost 300 competing for a championship.

 
Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the #12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series ServiceMaster 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 9, 2013 in Avondale, Arizona.
Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the #12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series ServiceMaster 200 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 9, 2013 in Avondale, Arizona.
Tom Pennington / Getty Images

Special to the Miami Herald

Sam Hornish Jr. did not just win an Indianapolis 500 in 2006, as historic a feat as that would be for any race driver in the world.

Hornish, over four riveting closing laps, rocketed past subsequent three-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon for third place, legendary Michael Andretti for second and, in the final 300 yards, Michael’s then-19-year-old son Marco for glory.

The storybook triumph propelled Hornish toward his third IndyCar crown in six years, and that championship remains the most recent in open-wheel racing for the famed Roger Penske empire.

The backgrounder is offered to refresh memories about the motor sports stage Hornish departed and the pinnacle he descended after the 2007 IndyCar season to shift his talents to NASCAR.

Stating the obvious, those talents didn’t travel well. Hornish and stock-car racing have not been a natural fit.

But after five grinding, often-exasperating years in NASCAR’s two top series, Hornish reaches the Nationwide series’ Ford EcoBoost 300 season windup at Homestead-Miami Speedway once again competing for a championship.

Austin Dillon, 23-year-old grandson of accomplished team owner Richard Childress, will attempt to preserve a tenuous eight-point lead over Hornish on Saturday and add a Nationwide title to his 2011 Camping World Trucks crown.

But being relevant in a title fight again has gratified Hornish, still only 34 in a sport in which drivers’ careers can extend into their 40s. He has never looked back with what-ifs or regrets.

“People ask me, ‘Don’t you wish you were still in Indy cars?’ ” Hornish said by telephone last week. “I can guarantee you that I wouldn’t still be racing right now if I had stayed in Indy cars.

“It was time to try something new. Something in my gut told me I needed to go out and extend myself, learn a little bit more about myself, try to challenge myself again.

“I can honestly say that [the switch to NASCAR] has prolonged my racing career,” he added, no matter how three lean full-time seasons at the Sprint Cup level from 2008 through 2010 might have clouded perceptions of his driving skills.

In addition, Hornish ran 20 Sprint Cup races in Penske’s No. 22 Ford as replacement for suspended A.J. Allmendinger in 2012. Again, he experienced limited success, though he did finish fourth in Nationwide points in his full-time ride.

But Penske hired 23-year-old Joey Logano to fill the No. 22 seat full-time this year. Hornish, characteristically stoic and not one to get too high or too low no matter the circumstances, took that in stride.

“I was disappointed,” Hornish admitted, “because I could see what that team was capable of.” Logano drove to one victory and made the Chase for the Cup, though he’ is ranked a distant ninth. Added Hornish: “I felt I definitely could have been part of that, but I also knew we’d have a great opportunity over here.”

Moonlighting Sprint Cup drivers ineligible for the Nationwide championship have typically dominated in victories, with Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski combining for a remarkable 18 victories in 32 races.

But Hornish steered to his second career Nationwide win at Las Vegas in March, leading 114 of 200 laps and outdueling Busch to the checkered flag by 1.1 seconds. That staked him to a points lead that he has traded back and forth with Dillon and Regan Smith throughout an intensely competitive season.

Better representing the upgrade in Hornish’s performance than victories are 16 top-five finishes. At Phoenix last Sunday, he persisted for fifth place in an ill-handling car and lost only two points to Dillon.

“Eight points is a little bit more than I would like to have to overcome [at Homestead],” he said afterwards. “But from the time the race started [Sunday]until Lap 200, that’s better than what I thought it was going to be.” It was a case of maximizing the result.

Even now, there’s uncertainty about his 2014 plans because Penske, who has rising star Ryan Blaney under contract for next year, has given Hornish the go-ahead to explore all options. If racing fortunes favor him at Homestead, he could become a champion with an overcast future. But he doesn’t look back.

“I’ve been very blessed to be in racing as long as I have and to accomplish the things that I have, regardless of what the next couple years hold,” he said contemplatively.

He’s still driven, still hungry, still hopeful. But there’s more to life, he reminded. “I enjoy spending a lot of time with my wife [Crystal] and kids [Addison and Eliza], and sometimes racing gets in the way of that.”

What might have happened had he stayed in Indy cars? Irrelevant, he insisted convincingly.

“I felt I had achieved everything I could ever have dreamed of, and more,” he said of the open-wheel career that produced 19 victories in 110 starts and 28 more finishes of second or third.

Incidentally, three of those victories were achieved at Homestead. A fourth, this time in a stock car, would certainly enhance the championship prospects that have energized him.

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