Hornish sees second opportunity
LOUDON, N.H. -- Sam Hornish Jr. didn't ask many questions.
When he got the phone call last Saturday telling him to take a private plane to Daytona Beach, Fla., telling him there was a last-minute emergency and he was going to drive in that night's Sprint Cup race, which would begin in less than three hours, he didn't ask why, what car or what happened to the teammate he was replacing.
"He goes, 'Well, I didn't know if I should ask or if it was a secret or what, so I just decided they would tell me when it was time,'" Penske Racing president Tim Cindric recalled of an early-week rehash with his driver about that frantic day.
That tells you all you need to know about the man who, on Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, will replace the suspended AJ Allmendinger for the second straight race.
Hornish is one of the most shy and unassuming drivers you'll meet. He's so laid-back that at times you wonder how he exists in a world where being brash and bold on the track is the only way to survive. He collects toy wagons and pedal cars and says he would have been a professional bowler if this driving thing hadn't worked out, for goodness' sake.
Hornish is also one of the hungriest drivers in the garage. He didn't ask why he was replacing Allmendinger, in part because he didn't care. The three-time IndyCar Series champion just wants another opportunity to prove he belongs in NASCAR's top series, something that didn't happen in three years before he was demoted to test driver and part-time Nationwide Series driver in 2011. He's running Nationwide full-time this season.
He's made it clear that if Allmendinger's suspension for a failed drug test is extended when results of his "B" sample return from the lab, if the suspension ends Allmendinger's association with Penske Racing, he wants to be considered a candidate for the No. 22 Pennzoil Dodge full-time.
That's no disrespect to Allmendinger, who insists he didn't "knowingly" take the stimulant he claims led to the positive test. That's just the natural instinct of a driver who understands in this tough economy, in this world where you get chewed up and spit out at the slightest indication of weakness, you have to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.
"I don't see how anybody could blame me for wanting that opportunity if it becomes available," Hornish said.
You can't. If anything, management at Penske should be disappointed if Hornish didn't want this opportunity. It shows the kind of desire it takes to compete among some of the best drivers in the world.
The desire is so strong you can almost hear the need to prove himself in Hornish's voice.
"You're right," said Walt Czarnecki, the executive vice president of Penske Corp. "Going back to early on when he decided to come over to the NASCAR side, he was given the opportunity to go back to IndyCars. Sam, he never looked back."
Czarnecki was given the task of tracking down Hornish shortly after NASCAR was informed of Allmendinger's positive test. His first attempts failed because Hornish was in the middle of a live show on SPEED TV.
Hornish's first reaction when he and Czarnecki finally connected was to list all the things -- helmet, firesuit -- he needed to compete.
"He was thinking already," Czarnecki said. "It wasn't, 'What's going on?' It was: 'I'll be there. What do I have to do?'"
The first objective was to get to the airport. Knowing he had some time, Hornish began hydrating, having already driven in the Nationwide race the night before and having spent the morning on Lake Norman near Charlotte with his two girls, Addison and Eliza Jo.
He had to stop and get shoes, too.
"I wore flip-flops to the studio before I put my suit and everything on, and I didn't want to show up at the track with flip-flops on," Hornish said with a laugh.
Hornish made it to the track less than 10 minutes before engines fired. He had a pretty good run going until a blown tire on Lap 82 left him with a 33rd-place finish.
"I saw the expression on his face when he got to the track," Czarnecki said. "He saw this as an opportunity."
The next morning, Hornish texted team owner Roger Penske to inform him that if needed again, he was available. He was rewarded with the ride at New Hampshire.
Loudon was actually where Hornish's Cup career began in September 2007. He arrived with crew chief Roy McCauley, who had left Kurt Busch earlier in the season to help his wife battle cancer, and the No. 77 team they planned to take to Cup full-time in 2008.
It didn't go well. Hornish, with basically three days of testing in a Cup car, failed to qualify.
"That was humbling," Cindric said.
The next three years were humbling for Hornish. The driver who had 19 wins and 27 other podium finishes in IndyCar, who won three titles and an Indianapolis 500, had only two top-5s and eight top-10s and finished no better than 28th in points.
He wrecked so many times that you came to the track expecting something bad to happen.
So did he.
It wasn't entirely Hornish's fault. He was rushed into Cup with little stock car experience because Mobil I offered full sponsorship. Owners simply don't turn down full sponsorship.
Hornish was also impatient, which often led to trouble.
I don't see how anybody could blame me for wanting that opportunity if it becomes available.” -- Sam Hornish Jr.
"It was like this: If I run 95 percent, I'm going to run 20th and 25th," Hornish told me in 2010. "It's like I don't want to hit anything. I don't want to bend everything up and be on TV for doing it.
"But at the end of the day, there is something in my brain that doesn't allow me to say, 'I'm OK with 25th.' It's 'Screw that; go for it!'"
Hornish went for it so many times he basically drove himself out of Cup. In 2011, he was asked to take a step back, test Cup cars for rising star Brad Keselowski and drive a partial Nationwide schedule. Slowly but surely he began to get it. He had six top-10s in 13 Nationwide starts, including a victory in the next-to-last race at Phoenix.
It was then that Penske said the plan was to put Hornish in a Nationwide car full-time in 2012 and get him back to Cup in 2013.
"We threw Sam into the deep end of the pool right away," Czarnecki said. "If we had to do it over again, it would be a different process. But his head is above water now. He's swimming pretty good."
Hornish has improved, which makes him more confident than ever. He is fourth in the Nationwide standings, 35 points behind Elliott Sadler. He has completed all but two laps and has an average finish of 9.6.
"Sometimes you need to take a step back in anything you do to get better," Keselowski said.
In stepping back, Hornish learned patience.
"When Brad is having a bad day, he doesn't make it worse," Cindric said. "I felt like with the 77 group, a lot of times when we were having a bad day it became a horrible day. You don't have to go out of the park every week. When you swing for the fences, a lot of times you strike out."
Hornish doesn't want to strike out this time. He knows a good showing at New Hampshire and any potential subsequent races could lead to big things in 2013.
Some fans will say Hornish had his chance, that he doesn't deserve another. Hornish doesn't care, noting that there are drivers without his credentials who have had more chances "and haven't had the results for it or respect for it."
Hornish deserves a second chance. Once fans get to know the native of Defiance, Ohio, who is more stock car than IndyCar with his Mayberry-like roots, they'll probably like him.
He's funny, engaging and genuine.
"Sam tells a great story about being up for an ESPY against Matt Leinart and Vince Young after he won the Indy 500," Keselowski said. "When he gets into town, he ends up riding the elevator with the two quarterbacks.
"The nice guy that Sam is, he wishes them luck in the voting. They both look at him like he was crazy, like there was no way he could be up for an ESPY."
That's Hornish, as unassuming as any driver you'll meet.
He's also as hungry to prove himself as any you'll meet.