If he would have stayed in IndyCar racing, Sam Hornish Jr. could have been one of the greats. Up there with A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti in open-wheel racing lore.
Hornish had one of the most dominant stretches in IndyCar racing history. He won three championships during a six-year period from 2001-06, becoming the youngest champion in history at 22 in 2001. He defended his title in 2002, and won again in 2006 — the same year he won the coveted Indianapolis 500.
But, at 27, Hornish decided it was time to make the transition to NASCAR. There wasn’t much more to accomplish in open-wheel racing, after all.
“I could’ve tried to win a couple more Indy 500s, which would have been nice,” Hornish said. “But I had three IndyCar championships over six years, so to win 50 percent of the championships was pretty good.
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“I felt like what would be more fulfilling would be to try [stock-car racing]. It’s something I wanted to try out, and I knew it could turn out a lot of different ways, and most weren’t going to be the outcome I wanted at the end. But I was at the point if I didn’t try, I’d always wonder.”
With that, Hornish embarked on what has become a rocky road in NASCAR. He was thrown into the fire at the highest level of racing, joining the Cup series in his first full year in 2008. He had only four top-20 finishes that season, and didn’t post a top-10 finish until his 44th Cup race.
Hornish ran a full Cup schedule from 2008-10, and has not visited Victory Lane. He finished a career-best 28th in points in 2009, and came in 29th at the end of 2010, losing his full-time ride.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself to succeed quickly,” Hornish said. “Even if the car wasn’t up to it that day, I tried to make it happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time you try to make it happen, it’s not going to work out. The bigger the hole, the more you start digging and you don’t realize you’re sinking deeper.
“It’s one of those things that taught me a lot about myself and the type of person I am.”
Even without a Cup ride, Hornish stuck by Penske Racing and ran a limited Nationwide Series schedule in 2011. He got a full-time ride in the second-tier series last season and finished fourth in points.
This year, Hornish is off to the best start of any driver in the series. The driver of the No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford sits atop the points standings, won in Las Vegas a month ago and has not finished worse than seventh in five races.
He goes into Friday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 seeking his first Nationwide victory at TMS. It’s a track that Hornish has had success at — as an IndyCar driver.
Hornish won three times, including his last IndyCar win at the Bombardier Learjet 550k in 2007, and still has led the most IndyCar laps (446) of anyone in TMS history.
But his NASCAR races here tell a different story. He finished 17th or worse in seven Cup starts and has finished outside the top-10 in four of six Nationwide races.
However, it’s a new year for Hornish, who has made the most of his second chance.
“There were people fighting for me to have a job last year, and they wouldn’t have done that at the end of 2010,” Hornish said. “All I can say is I was very blessed to have a second opportunity to prove myself. There are a lot of guys who don’t get a second opportunity.”