Hornish shoots for Nationwide title and a ride for next year

Posted Thursday, Oct. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Sam Hornish Jr. is proving he can win in stock cars.

But if he wants a ride next year, he has to show he can bring a sponsor.

Despite having a chance to win the Nationwide Series championship, Hornish doesn’t have a ride lined up for next year. His contract with Penske Racing is up, and Penske hasn’t shown any public inclination to bring him back if a sponsor can’t be found for his No. 12 Ford.

“I’ve feel like we’ve had a good year. There are a lot of things that people have taken notice of,” Hornish said. “The unfortunate part about it right now is that winning the championship doesn’t really secure you anything as far as the kind of job you want the following year.”

Hornish has more than a good enough résumé as he prepares for Saturday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway.

He is a three-time champion in Indy cars, winning the IndyCar Series championships in 2001, 2001 and 2006. Sitting eight points off the lead with three races to go in the Nationwide Series, he’s trying to join Tony Stewart as the only drivers to win season championships in Indy cars and stock cars.

But he knows the score in today’s dollars.

“The economy in the sport is still not great,” he said. “There are guys in extremely good rides having a hard time carrying the sponsorship they need. I want to win the championship just because of what it means to me. Being able to put NASCAR champion on my résumé would be great.

“On the other hand, I also know you don’t win every championship you’re in the running for. Just the fact that we have run as well as we have and given ourselves the opportunity is pretty meaningful.”

Crew chief Greg Erwin said Hornish has already made his season meaningful, considering he is only in his second full Nationwide season and put in three unremarkable full-time seasons in Sprint Cup before that.

“His orientation to the stock car arena, at least here at Penske, was pretty rocky,” Erwin said. “They were going through some troubles here, I think, internally in terms of how the place ran and communicated and managed. I know for the most part, they weren’t very happy with the race cars they were producing.… I think it may have delayed his ability to develop and mature, a little bit.

“I think if you look at the last three years, maybe, of his stock car career, I think he has shown steady improvement.”

Hornish’s shot at the championship looked far more certain a few weeks ago than it does now.

He was 17 points ahead of Austin Dillon after the Chicago race on Sept. 14. But the lead was chopped to four points after a 17th-place finish at Dover two weeks later, and another 17th-place finish, at Kansas, lost the lead.

Hornish, who blamed a mechanical problem for one of the finishes and himself for the other, can see the underdog angle in his pursuit against the 23-year-old Dillon and his Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet.

“Austin’s obviously got a lot of people around him who have a lot of intelligence in this sport and who know what’s going on,” he said. “He’s in a good spot. With a family member as a team owner, you’re pretty sure you’re going to have a job going forward. He’s also got some people to learn from: people like Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard, people who have been a part of NASCAR racing for many, many years, and he also has watched it for a number of years.”

And now, after all these years, Hornish believes he has gotten some of the same advantages around him. Although they may be gone soon.

“Really feel like I’ve got better people around me, I’ve gotten better, and I’ve gotten better ideas that I need,” he said. “It’s been good in a lot of ways to get through it. I can really see getting the right people around you, the difference that it makes.”

Carlos Mendez, 817-390-7407 Twitter: @calexmendez

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