Hornish Jr. Looking Left Out As 2012 Nears End
KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Sam Hornish Jr. cut a bit of a lonely figure as he stared out the windows that overlook Kansas Speedway from the Turn 2 Bar and Restaurant at the recently opened trackside Hollywood Casino.
Behind him, media, PR people and fans were milling about as they waited for the start of a driver appearance in which the Penske Racing driver and former Indianapolis 500 winner would take on a giant barbequed-brisket-covered hamburger known as The Beast and a big metal bowl of fries that comes with it.
In front of Hornish were ARCA cars and drivers who were testing for the upcoming race weekend. As one bounced off the wall just a couple dozen yards in front of him at 180 mph, Hornish, gasped, “Wow” and looked around as if looking for somebody for whom to say “did you see that?”.
But he gasped alone.
Then, it was burger time.
Hornish’s thoughts are quite clearly more on racing these days than on driver appearances, schmoozing, “six whole slices of cheddar cheese!” and taking the same stale questions from the media. Hornish’s racing career has veered into the unknown.
When he did take a few minutes to answer questions, he was frank to the max. He talked carefully but candidly about his less-than-joyous situation at Penske Racing and his relationship with the man known by many as The Captain: A relationship which has become – both person-to-person and business-wise – unmistakably cooler as
a result of the Penske decision to hand the No. 22 Sprint Cup car over to outsider Joey Logano in 2013.
“Still not happy about it,” Hornish said Tuesday. Even a month down the line.
“At some point in time,” Hornish said, making sure he chose the right words and tone, “I’ll become more comfortable talking about it. But, you’ve got two hands. I feel that Roger has been very loyal to me on one hand. On the other hand, I’ve kinda been overlooked on that Shell Pennzoil car a couple of times already. I can understand all of it, but it does make you think about what your future is going to be.”
When Hornish decided he wanted to become a racecar driver, the modest kid from the modest surroundings of Defiance, Ohio, adopted some fairly modest goals. Modest, that is for race car drivers. He said he wanted to simply qualify for the field in the Indianapolis 500.
He accomplished that goal in 2000, driving for owner Paul Diatlovich. The following three years, he again qualified for the 500, this time for the Panther Racing team which was – and is – owned by open-wheel veteran John Barnes and current San Francisco 49ers head coach, Jim Harbaugh. Oh, and Hornish also won the IndyCar championship those three years.
After winning those championships, Hornish found himself to be a wanted man. Good-wanted. Calls came in from, among others, Rick Hendrick and J.D. Gibbs of NASCAR. He turned them all down mostly because he had another goal: To work for Penske.
“I turned down a lot of people to come to Penske Racing,” Hornish said. “People forget about that. Every good Cup team you can think of before I went to Penske and try to win the Indianapolis 500. But sometimes you got to give up something to get something. If it means you’ve got to tell Rick Hendrick no…that was one of the toughest things, is to having to tell Rick Hendrick I couldn’t be part of his team.”
Several of the those prime offers came after Hornish had committed to Roger Penske. And Hornish, just as he would never cheat while competing in his beloved bowling, would not go back on his deal. No matter how badly he would have wanted to.
“When I was sitting down going through the pros and cons of things,” Hornish said, “I’d go, ‘Who were my favorite Indycar drivers growing up? There’s Rick Mears, Al Unser Jr., Danny Sullivan. What do they all have in common? They all drove for Roger.’ So…”
Even though he did get that victory at The Speedway for Penske – and himself – and even though he had become
increasingly uncomfortable in Indycars which were crashing and injuring a significant number of top drivers, Hornish still just has to think, “That stuff (of turning down solid NASCAR offers) may have hurt me now.”
Hornish went to team-owner Penske after winning the 2006 Indy 500, and asked about moving over to the team’s NASCAR side. Penske said yes.
That year, Hornish drove in a couple of Nationwide races and several more in Cup late in the year.
Things did not go very well in the bigger, heavier low-downforce stock cars. And they wouldn’t consistently – not even when he was doing NASCAR full time – until this season.
The 2012 season has been described by many as the year that Hornish got it – got how to consistently squeeze speed and good finishes out of stock cars. He’s run among the leaders in Cup since taking over the No. 22 car for A.J. Allmendinger – who got that ride instead of Hornish after Kurt Busch was let go for boorish behavior during the 2011 season – and has made a legitimate run at the Nationwide championship for Penske Racing.
Hornish certainly feels that he has gotten “it” enough to warrant a fulltime Cup ride in 2013.
Then came the call telling him that the 22 car was going to Joe Gibbs Racing’s Logano, who was a long-time friend of Penske’s “A” driver, Brad Keselowski.
Hornish has not said much about the role he thinks Keselowski played in bringing Logano to Penske. He certainly has not criticized his teammate for whatever that role might have been.
But on giant hamburger day, Hornish took a luke warm attitude about helping Keselowski, the current Chase points leader, win this year’s championship. “I can do a lot of things, but, ‘What will I do?’ is probably another thing…I’m not wrecking anybody to help him out.”
Hornish said that while Penske and his organization have done a lot for him and his career, Hornish, too, has done a lot for Penske and his organization. This year, Hornish has gotten a lot of credit for helping Penske Racing by doing much of the testing on the new electronic fuel injection system. Penske cars appear to be at or near the top of the curve in adapting to the new fueling system. Several times, including during last weekend’s win by Keselowski at Dover, Penske cars have used fuel mileage to attain good results.
Asked why he thinks he was passed over for the No. 22 ride this most recent time, Hornish said, “I want to believe is they felt they were really close to having a third Cup team, and we could parlay some of our Nationwide sponsors with a new Cup sponsor.”
That has not happened. Probably won’t happen, both Hornish and the team have said.
Probably too late to happen and the relationship with Penske may keep it from happening: “When Roger says he wants me back in one of his cars next year, it keeps other people from calling,” Hornish said. “They don’t want to step on his toes.”
So, Hornish will head into the final weeks of the season – and then, perhaps, the offseason – wanting, but not having a fulltime Cup ride.
A ride which he so badly wants.
And a ride thinks he deserves from Penske.
Hornish got most animated Tuesday when a couple of recent interactions with his team owner came up. The first when Penske thanked him for being a valuable test driver; “A test driver!”, Hornish said, eyes wide.
The second occurred during the Chicagoland weekend which kicked off the Chase and happened just after Logano, it was announced, would be brought on board.
Penske was spotting for Hornish, and, he remembers, “We took two tires and we were back from sixth running 11th or 12th something like that. I was racing against the 15 (Clint Bowyer) and the 56 (Martin Truex Jr.) and Roger’s like, ‘Alright, nine (laps) to go, the 2 (Keselowski) is leading.’ I just said, ‘Thank you.’ The next day he (Penske) said, ‘I was wasn’t trying to make you mad.’ I was like, ‘I know you weren’t trying to make me mad’ but I knew the 2 was leading too!’ I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize him winning the race.”
That’s because even though he and Penske “are not as tight” as they used to be, and even though Hornish is disappointed with the way things have gone down, and even though his future has been thrown into disarray, Hornish still remains loyal at heart to The Captain and his crew.
He still feels honored to be part of Penske lore. “When I came to do this,” Hornish said, “I said that Roger hadn’t won the Daytona 500 or a championship over here and I said, and I’m sure it’s quoted somewhere, that I may not be the guy who does it for him, but I want to be part of it.
“I want him to win this championship (with Keselowski this year) just as bad has he wants to win it. I really do feel like even if I’m just the lackey backup driver, at least I am part of it in some way, shape or form.”
So, where to from here? Probably back to his Penske Nationwide Series ride.
Hornish would not say what kind of deal he has with Penske for next year. He did say that Penske told him that he was free to look elsewhere – kind of. “He said, that ‘If you get an opportunity to go Cup racing with a good team, I certainly won’t hold you back.’ But he also did specify Cup racing and a good team, so, I don’t know.
“I feel that part of his loyalty to me is that he knows he could have done some things better to make all this go over a lot easier, and part of my loyalty to him is that I know there are some things I could have done better too. I feel like we are both man enough to admit our mistakes and to know we both could have done something better to help us out. Whether it was me putting my foot down about certain things or him putting his down. It’s a good working relationship because neither of us thinks we are always right.”
It would be a better relationship, the way it sounds, if Hornish were moving back up to a Penske Cup car next year.
– Jim Pedley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments