Sam Hornish Jr. made a daring move over the off-season. It was a questionable move at first, but so far, it is paying off for the former Indianapolis 500 champion, even though he has only run two races for his new team.
After getting let go from Team Penske coming off of a runner-up finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series points standings, Hornish was left searching for a ride. He could have gone full-time racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series once again, but he would not have been competitive. Hornish chose to race for Joe Gibbs Racing. However, the deal is just for seven events in the No. 54 Toyota which is usually piloted by Cup Series driver, Kyle Busch.
Hornish had a chance to replace Denny Hamlin at the Auto Club Speedway in March. Although it was at the last minute, Hornish capitalized on the opportunity - racing inside the top-15 during the second half of the race before finishing 17th. Prior to that event, Hornish had not even tested a car with Joe Gibbs Racing, and was not in a racecar since the season finale last year at Homestead.
"I think this is a great starting point with a great sponsor in Monster Energy and being at JGR. I feel like this year is the first time that I have my foot in the door and I will have the opportunity to go out there to race and to be in excellent equipment," Hornish said during the Bristol race weekend.
"This is probably the best opportunity as far as equipment wise that I have ever had on the stock car side. I don’t have any opportunity yet to know how it is all going to turn out, but I am looking forward to it and I think it is going to be good. You never know, but if you look at a lot of the stats from last year, I was second to Kyle in a lot of stats-as far as cars passed a lap after a restart or driver rating wise, laps led, top-three finishes and stuff like that. I feel like it should be a pretty good thing for us to work together. I am excited about it."
On Saturday's running of the Aaron's 312 at Talladega, Hornish finally had his chance to prove he is capable of contending for wins. In his first time racing a Toyota in NASCAR's second-tier division, Hornish won his sixth career Nationwide Series pole award. Even with mediocre results at Talladega in the Cup Series, the Defiance, Ohio native earned a top-five finish. He was able to stay out of trouble, and earned valuable points for the No. 54 car which will help the team contend for the owners title.
While his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Elliott Sadler, won the race - Hornish helped get him there. Sadler fell back late in the race. However, Hornish and he were working together. Hornish was ahead of Sadler, but then Hornish enabled Sadler to squeeze in front of him, and the two lost little to no track position. That bold move enabled the two to work their way back into contention, giving JGR two cars in the top-five even though their teammate, Darrell Wallace Jr., was out of contention due to a wreck.
The move might have been questionable for Hornish. Running full-time might have given him a shot at contending for top-10s on a weekly basis. However, he wants to contend for wins. Hornish did that on Saturday.
He will have six more chances to do so in the No. 54 this year. He will be in the Monster Energy Camry at Iowa in two weeks as well as Road America, Chicagoland, Mid-Ohio and Kentucky. Moreover, the biggest part of Hornish's decision was what can come out of this opportunity if he capitalizes in each event.
"I’d like to go out there, I have seven races on the schedule right now, and I’d like to go win (all) seven races. That is not really what is expected of me. What is expected of me is to maximize the amount of points on the days that we have together. If we have seven second place finishes, I’m sure we would be happy with that too. I just have to be smart about it. I think we’re going to have some good races and be successful. You never know until you go out there and do it. I feel like I have an opportunity here to be really good."