Commentary

Hornish has a tough job to do

Updated: November 8, 2013, 6:48 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

Austin Dillon and Sam Hornish Jr.Tom Pennington/NASCAR/Getty ImagesAustin Dillon, left, and Sam Hornish Jr. are in a fight to the finish to win the Nationwide Series title.

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Sam Hornish Jr. had spent nearly half an hour penciling a self-portrait, meticulously trying to replicate the swoop of the jaw as he glanced repeatedly at an enlarged photograph of himself on the table beside him. The little girl seated next to him at the charity event had already finished her version of his No. 12 Ford and was waiting patiently.

Eventually, it was time for a photograph, whether Hornish was ready or not.

"I need a little more time," he said.

He didn't get it. He does have a little more -- but not much -- time in attempting to capture his first NASCAR championship, with two races left on the Nationwide Series schedule. And he gets a little more -- but not much -- before the longtime Penske Racing driver enters an uncertain offseason in which the three-time IndyCar champion and eight-year NASCAR veteran will try to secure a job for 2014.

[+] EnlargeSam Hornish Jr.
Todd Warshaw/Getty ImagesSam Hornish Jr. knows he's running out of time, but he's hoping two races is still enough to snatch the Nationwide Series title.

For now, Hornish has two races, beginning Saturday at Phoenix International Raceway (4 p.m. ET, ESPN2 and WatchESPN), to erase a six-point shortfall to Austin Dillon, who is seeking a first Nationwide title before launching a full-time Sprint Cup career at Richard Childress Racing next season.

By the sound of it, Hornish thinks time is aplenty in terms of the championship pursuit.

"The biggest thing is knowing we don't have to have it all this weekend," Hornish said. "A lot of mistakes can be made and things like that. We're just going to go out there and try to run the 12 car's race to the best of our ability and worry about ourselves and figure out where it shakes out for Homestead. It's two tracks where I really loving racing at, especially Phoenix. It's been good to me. A lot of firsts came here."

Hornish made his first Sprint Cup and Nationwide starts at the 1-mile oval in the suburban Phoenix sprawl and won twice here in IndyCar. His first Nationwide win came here in 2011. Dillon has finished fourth once and sixth twice in his past three Phoenix starts.

Points figure to be closely contested and difficult to find, especially because Dillon crew chief Danny Stockman intimated that his team will take a conservative approach in the final two races. Dillon stressed the need to continue milling top-5s -- he has five in his past nine races and no finishes of worse than 12th in that span -- and to "stay away from the big mistake.''

"Basically, it's just about being consistent right now and definitely not doing anything to try and hinder any sort of points that you can gain," Stockman said. "You're going to have to pay attention to all the little details and not get behind, just try to maximize your points without any risk.

"Obviously, with the points being so close you just can't do anything to risk it. You just try to stay consistent. If we're capable of winning, we'll win. But we're definitely not going to push fuel mileage or anything like that to try and do it. We're just going to keep honing it down here, and hopefully when the checkered flag falls in Homestead, it all plays out."

Stockman said he thinks Dillon can win. So does his driver. One on Saturday could go far in securing Dillon's second NASCAR championship -- he won the 2011 Trucks title -- but Dillon stressed the need to properly assess risk and reward.

"I think we need to win a race," Dillon said. "I feel like we can shut it down in a day if we win tomorrow. I feel like if we win that race it will really help us. Definitely help us. We'll keep up with where [Hornish] is running, too, and that's a part of it. You have that advantage."

Hornish had advantages of his own, currently holding key tiebreakers over Dillon with more wins (one), top-5s (15), and top-10s (23). With Nationwide regulars having won just four of 31 races this season, and trophy bandits Kyle Busch (11 wins) and Brad Keselowski (six) in the field helping Joe Gibbs Racing and Penske, respectively, contest the owners' championship, reaching Victory Lane will remain arduous.

"I look at all those blocks and we're ahead on those," Hornish said of the tiebreakers. "If we get out of here with a win, we can help ourselves a lot."

Stockman said risk aversion is built into his season-long plan of gaining information and applying it in the stretch. The first third of the season, he said, is used to assess experimental setups, the next third used to determine which work best.

And then, he said, "you have the third part of the season and that basically all you're doing is working on your baseline setup, knowing exactly what you have in the race, knowing exactly what adjustments do what in the race so when you're in the race you have no unknowns. That's where we're at right now. We're running our package that we know works.

"It may not be the fastest package but it will definitely be a package that will compete in the top 5 every week. It will be consistent on adjustments, and that's how we're approaching it right now with the championship so close."

With Hornish needing a little more time, and Dillon hoping to run it out.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He once induced Danica Patrick into a dance number from Moulin Rouge by saying the word "Switzerland." It's been pretty interesting so far.

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