On Saturday, Sam Hornish Jr. will suit up to make his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start of 2014 and his first for Joe Gibbs Racing, driving the No. 54 Toyota in the Aaron's 312 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. Hornish most recent raced in the Nationwide Series in 2013, running the full season for Team Penske in the No. 12 Ford before losing his ride because of sponsorship issues at the end of the season.
Hornish did drive a car for Joe Gibbs Racing earlier this season, filling in for the injured Denny Hamlin in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., in March.
In all, Hornish is expected to compete in seven Nationwide races for Joe Gibbs Racing by season's end, with Talladega being the first.
On Thursday, Hornish spoke to the media about his deal with JGR and his return to Nationwide competition. Here's what he had to say:
How does it feel to be back in the Nationwide Series this weekend with Joe Gibbs Racing?
“I have to say that you really would think that it felt like a very long time since Miami being that it’s closing in on six months, but the fact of having a third child, a lot of things happening with having a six and three year old and also switching teams it’s seemed to go by very fast, and I really feel blessed and fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to get my foot in the door at JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing), to be able to be in the Monster Energy car, to have a sponsor that makes a product that I use on a daily basis and I feel like it’s just very exciting. But, on the other hand we’re coming to Talladega and there’s a lot of things that are out of a driver’s control when it gets down to it. My big thing is just to use this weekend to learn the team a little bit more. I’ve gone to a few races starting off the season. Had the opportunity to listen to Kyle (Busch) and Adam Stevens (crew chief) work together and this is -- I feel like a lot of ways the practice, the qualifying and the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race -- is me getting to know the team and all of those things. Just super excited about the opportunity that I’m given and had a lot of fan support about how much people say they want to see me back in the car full-time and believe me I want to be in it. But having the opportunity to get it in this level caliber of a race car makes me feel really good about it. I’m looking forward to this year for sure. I know it’s only seven races, but I’ve already got one freebie this year getting to fill in for Denny (Hamlin) out in California and hopefully will figure out a way to get myself in some more races in this JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) equipment.”
How have you been able to keep yourself fresh on the driving side of things?
“I chauffeur my kids around a lot. That’s about the biggest thing right now. I got 400 miles of practice out in California. I’ve done some go-karting work, I’ve done some simulator stuff but very, very little as far as what I’ve been accustomed to in the past. But, I feel like the good thing about this weekend is it’s not one of those weekends where it’s high stress right off the get-go because there’s a lot of things with this setup that you run on these superspeedways that are not interchangeable. You’re not thrashing to find a little bit more speed. It’s kind of there or it isn’t. You can change some things, but it’s not like going to Iowa that we’re going to have in a couple weeks and fortunate enough to get an opportunity now with Iowa having some resurfacing done there to get the opportunity to go test there. I feel like by the time we get to Iowa I’m going to have a whole lot more seat time. I feel like I’m going to feel pretty comfortable for the fact that I went to California and hadn’t been in a car for a long time and got to go out there and get the car up into the top-10 in a seat that wasn’t mine and a car that wasn’t setup for me. I feel like those 400 miles was as beneficial as anything that I’m going to have throughout the beginning of the year here.”
What were your emotions like at the end of last season?
“There’s been -- I guess this is the third or fourth time in my career where I’ve been to a place that’s been similar to this. Before I ever won my first IndyCar race I was in a situation where it was almost what I felt like was going to be the end of my career and I’m sitting there trying to figure out what I’m going to do and then in the course of a week it went from not having a ride for that weekend to getting a ride, leading some laps and putting myself in position to be at a bigger team. And that turned out to be two out of three championships in a row and 11 race wins. That was the first time I went through it and then I went through it in 2011 running a part-time schedule when I was still at Penske and parlayed that to within two years of almost winning the championship. Maybe that’s setting me up for a failure or something else, but it puts me in a mindset where I’ve been here and I know that if I can do the right things behind the wheel and also do the right things with the sponsors that hopefully I will be able to put myself in the same situation, and instead of coming up three points short of the championship I might be able to win it this next time.”
Did you think it would take awhile to find a new team after last season?
“Well, the good thing for me and really what my opinion is -- if you’re going to be somewhere for the length of time that I was and you can get your foot in the door somewhere else, I mean, there’s not very many -- there's only one other place I can think of that matches this caliber of an organization for the wins and things like that. I’m just really excited that Monster Energy and Joe Gibbs Racing gave me the opportunity to basically be a part-time guy. That’s exactly right. You never know what each thing is going to turn into. I went out to California to be there incase Matt Kenseth needed to leave and I end up getting to run Denny Hamlin’s car. That’s how these things go. Sometimes not being obligated to somebody and maybe sitting at home a little bit more than you’d like to is better than being obligated to somebody and being out there and racing and then when that next opportunity comes along you don’t get it. That’s been one of the great things that the guys at JGR have told me from the start -- as long as I fulfill my commitment to them if I get an opportunity to do some other stuff they’re more than willing because they want to see me out there running as much as they can. I feel very fortunate that I have somebody that has that kind of an outlook and really have made me feel from the get-go that they have my best interest in mind about giving me this opportunity and also have allowed me to move forward too.”
How crazy do you expect ‘knock-out’ qualifying to be at Talladega this weekend?
“Which one? I mean, you know, the Nationwide cars seem to do a pretty good job of it when we went to Daytona. There was probably a little more of people getting to know what it was going to be like and just trying to get through that first one. But, I would say that you would expect a similar thing. Sometimes the Cup guys are out there and it might be a little bit different because there’s a lot more guys that are going for that pole or want that good starting spot. But, I think that there’s always that issue that you could have some kind of a problem because you’re putting some guys -- even if you’ve got three or four guys together, they’re going to want to get behind the main part of the pack because there is so much speed back there and you have guys overlapping each other. And I think that the only reason I would say that the Cup cars might have a little bit more issue of it is because those guys are all more adept in doing that and falling back whereas some of the guys over here, we’re just looking to get in a pack and run because they knew that was going to be enough to put them into the race, where those guys might be a little bit more aggressive with moving those things around. I don’t know. I hope it goes really smoothly. I think it’s a great opportunity, but it is a little bit nerve-racking when you look at just even the JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) situation for this weekend on the Nationwide side. You’ve got myself which is the first race that I’m scheduled to be in. Bubba’s (Darrell Wallace Jr.) first race of the year on the Nationwide side and Elliott (Sadler) and I’m sure we’re all three going to try to work out how to do it and who is going to lead and who is going to be in the back. You want to keep the pack together so you don’t want to lose the third guy. So, it’s going to be a little bit interesting but I think that that’s part of fun of it and there’s definitely strategy involved in it as opposed to where guys have said over the past few years, ‘Ah, it’s all the car. All I’ve got to do is get in it and turn it for a little bit.’ This is definitely bringing the driver back into it some more.”
Does a track like Talladega make rookie drivers more confident?
“In some ways, this track is easier to run at because it’s wider and it’s got a lot more room out there on the race track. That being said, it also gives people the opportunity to make it three or four-wide easier and to maybe get themselves in a bad position. The start-finish line being moved down and around the other end of the tri-oval definitely gives the opportunity coming off of (turn) four for people to make more moves. The track being wider gives that opportunity as well. I thought that for the amount of rookies that there were at Daytona that it went pretty good for what was to be expected. Those guys all have another race under their seats or under their belt and I feel like it really gives them the opportunity to maybe have a little bit more confidence coming in here, but I don’t know that’s always a good thing when you get to these superspeedway races. Sometimes while it may not be as exciting for the fans to get that first race where you just follow in line and make sure that you take care of your equipment and you feel like you’re just out there learning, that might put you in a little better position as opposed to, ‘Alright, I got this figured out and now I’m going to figure out how to get to the front.’ Really, this package the way that it’s changed even there’s been some small tweaks to it from where I ran last in these cars and I’m excited to see what the differences are at Talladega just based on the fact that the track is wider to give people more opportunities to move.”
Does simulation and go-karting help for Talladega?
“It’s always tough here because there are a lot of times when people move and last year I replayed that in my head a lot of times that if somebody wanted me to push them and they moved and it really was too late to make that move and I moved trying to not hit them and actually got myself turned around based on it. You never know what happens when you hit somebody when they’re moving. You just turn them then instead, but there’s a certain amount of that callousness that some guys that have been very successful at plate racing have been able to when somebody puts them in a position they don’t like instead of that flinch second of moving to try to keep yourself out of trouble, they just turn that car around and keep going on their way. I don’t know, I haven’t been able to get myself in that position -- maybe running go-karts will help out a little bit because you can bump some people around. The big thing for me with running the go-karts and what not and a little bit of simulator stuff I got to do, it’s just about keeping my mind in the game really. It’s good physical activity as well to be out there and to run, but there just hasn’t been enough of an opportunity for me to really do it the way that I would like to. I would say that I could have gone out and ran 20 go-kart races and been in the simulator for three days and it wouldn’t have prepared me as much or gave me as much as what that race in California did. The fact that I got to go out and run 400 miles out there really -- it just knocked the dust off and gave me the opportunity to get in a car and to talk on the radio and to think about some of the things that I maybe could have done better. And working with different people a lot of times is a good help because you can figure out what people like and what they don’t like and what you like about them as well. There’s no substitute for that seat time and being in an actual stock car and running around.”
Will the three JGR cars hooked together be fast enough to contend for the pole?
“Not just the three of us hooked up isn’t going to be able to do that, but being able to get behind the pack and to use what that pack is doing and the amount of air moving, that’s what gives you those opportunities for being on the pole. Do we need to be first here? No, but the closer you can be to the other end of pit road obviously helps you from getting any kind of fender creases or anything like that. We’re going to try to because not only are we going to have to do that in practice and qualifying, but the three of us being able to work well together in the race is going to be exponentially beneficial for us. I think that it’s really good for us to have the opportunity now instead of what we used to do in practice, we would come out here and we’d run maybe five laps because you were going to push and you were going to see how far you could push. How my car felt being pushed and how did I feel pushing somebody else and then you go out and change it over to qualifying trim and then you run by yourself for the rest of the time. This allows you to get three times the amount of activity as far as getting yourself ready for the race and being able to go out there and work together as a team.”
How do you feel about how things ended with Penske Racing?
“If we would have went out as champions there would have probably been a little easier to deal with, but I feel like a lot of that is in the past. I remember all the things that Roger (Penske) did for me and I remember doing my best to live up to the things that he expected from me and I feel like we both could have done things better along the way. We both did some pretty good things as a group together. If you hold on to any kind of hard feelings or anything like that, I know why they did what they did and I’m not the kind of person that holds grudges so I’m more excited about the opportunity that I have moving forward than I ever will be about thinking of what could have been. I’m the kind of person that I guess the glass is half full, I’m an optimist and I’ll put a lot of stuff behind me and just move on because I also remember that I started driving for Roger because I wanted to win the Indianapolis 500 and I started driving over there and he hired me because he wanted to win an IndyCar championship and we both did that together. I won my Indy 500 and he got his championship and it makes me feel pretty good that we started off on the right foot and maybe from there we didn’t always go hand in hand, but almost won a championship and it’s always easier if you think back if everything would have went perfect, but I had some opportunities going toward the end of last year and when I got the call that I was going to maybe have the opportunity to run the Monster Energy car and I had the opportunity to sit down with Joe (Gibbs, team owner) and J.D. (Gibbs, president), I walked out of that meeting and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to give it 24 hours because right now everything in my brain tells me to go ahead and to sign for whatever they want and go for it.’ I felt like they were the kind of people and the way they presented themselves and the things that they said in that first meeting just made me feel like this was exactly what I needed to do. I felt the same way after 24 hours and the same way after 48 hours and the same way after 48 days. I just feel like it’s a really good opportunity for me and it’s really been difficult to wait five months to be able to do something with it, but on the same hand patience is a virtue so I will do what I can.”