Hornish Jr. On The Cusp Of Title, Joblessness
Sam Hornish Jr. could end the season as 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series champion – and unemployed.
“I’m in the offer-taking stage right now. At this point they don’t have anything for me at Penske (Racing) next year,” Hornish said during an interview with RacinToday.com on Thursday. “It’s not anything performance-wise. It’s strictly money and not on our side of the deal. They’re having to shuffle things around to accommodate other people.”
Hornish, driver of Roger Penske’s No. 12 Ford Mustang, will take a 15-point lead over Austin Dillon of Richard Childress Racing into Saturday afternoon’s 5-Hour Energy 200 at the 1-mile Dover International Speedway.
Hornish’s “other people” reference was to 19-year-old Ryan Blaney, a developmental driver under contract to Penske Racing but without a fulltime ride heading into 2014. Blaney scored his breakthrough Nationwide Series win in his second start during Saturday night’s Kentucky 300 at the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway. Blaney’s win was Penske’s 10th of the season in the No. 22 Discount Tire Ford among four different drivers. Hornish finished fourth at Kentucky to retain his point lead with six races remaining.
Blaney drives fulltime for Brad Keselowski Racing – owned by the reigning Cup champion and Penske driver – in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Blaney has led only 65 laps in the Truck Series this year but paced a race-high 96 laps at Kentucky Speedway. He is fifth in the point-standings, with one win,
heading into Saturday night’s Smith’s 350 at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“Wish I had more Nationwide races to get me more experience in those cars. So that’s really what I’d like, but it’s not my decision to make,” said Blaney, son of former Cup regular and World of Outlaws Sprint Car champion Dave Blaney. “It’s the guys over there at Penske and knowing what they can do and what they think I’m ready for.
“We’ll find out here in the coming months, but right now my loyalty is to Penske and finishing out this 2013 season very strong.”
Hornish, who is in his second fulltime Nationwide season for Penske, indicated he was blindsided by the decision that likely will end his six-year stock car association with the organization.
“There’s not a whole lot of anything out there when I was told this,” Hornish said during a telephone interview. “If that was the case I should have known at the end of July. I found out a couple of weeks ago and I gave them some time to get ahead of it so it wouldn’t look like I’m trying to blow them out of the water.”
Hornish said he has begun shopping his services to rival team-owners in the garage area. “And what I get is they have no idea I’m available,” said Hornish, who has one win, 13 top-five, 21 top-10 and three poles working with crew chief Greg Erwin this season. “The comments I get from people I do talk to are like, ‘We just put something together you would have been a great candidate for.’ I’m hoping to have something (in NASCAR for 2014). Don’t know what it’ll be or what it’ll look like, so it’s not the best feeling.”
Through 27 events, Hornish has led the Nationwide standings for 14 races including the last six consecutive weeks. Sudden Sam opened the season with a seven-week stretch in the lead, topped by his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 9. Hornish has logged seven top-four finishes in his last 10 starts. During that span, he has posted a 5.5 average start and a 7.1 average finish.
Hornish won the third and most recent of his IZOD IndyCar Series championships for Marlboro Team Penske in 2006, a season that included victory in the Indianapolis 500. He posted back-to-back championships in 2001-02 for Panther Racing and team principal John Barnes.
Penske Racing announced this month the addition of 37-year-old Juan Pablo Montoya to its IndyCar Series lineup in 2014 alongside current point-leader Helio Castroneves and teammate Will Power. Montoya – the 1999 Champ Car World Series champion, 2000 Indy 500 champion and winner of seven Formula One races between 2001-06 – is finishing-out his seventh Cup season with team-owner Chip Ganassi.
Neither Penske nor Tim Cindric, Penske Racing president, was available this week for comment on Hornish’s future. But Hornish, who will drive the No. 12 Snap-on Ford at Dover, said Penske indicated he would be willing to field him in Nationwide again if proper funding could be secured.
Hornish exited the IndyCar Series after an eight-year run that produced 19 wins, 47 top-three finishes and 10 poles in 116 starts. He was the series’ youngest champion in 2001 at 22 years, 3 months and 4 days old. He still holds records for largest point margin in a championship (105) in 2001 and smallest margin (0) in 2006, when he tied the late Dan Wheldon but was declared champion via a tie-breaker.
Hornish, who logged three mediocre seasons in Cup for Penske from 2008-10 in the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge Charger, said he never seriously has considered returning to the open-wheel ranks. “When I came over here a lot of people speculated what the reasons were,” said Hornish, a 34-year-old native of Defiance, Ohio. “I said all along I wanted the challenge of it and going back to an open-wheel car wouldn’t help me achieve that goal. A lot of people expected me to go back, but I guess I’m too bull-headed or whatever to do something different.
“I feel like more and more people in the sport are coming around to what I can do in a stock car in general. You’ve got to have the right people around you and a lot of things in your favor to make it happen and show people what I’ve already known.
“Just because things were not working out, I never put a whole lot of thought into going back. I didn’t see the purpose. If I didn’t do my best to see it through, what was the purpose to even doing it?”
Asked if he might change his mind if no NASCAR ride materializes and return to the IndyCar Series, Hornish reiterated: “I don’t see myself doing that.”
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments