Commentary

Hornish has something to prove

Updated: November 14, 2013, 8:16 PM ET
By Brant James | ESPN.com

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Sam Hornish Jr. hesitates to place too much historical importance on it.

It may not be relevant in the broader NASCAR sense. But it's important to him. And entering a final weekend of the Nationwide Series season awash with conflicting emotions, that's good enough for him.

If the 34-year-old can erase the eight-point gap between himself and points leader Austin Dillon on Saturday in the Ford EcoBoost 300 (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), he would become just the second Indy car émigré to win a NASCAR championship, joining three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart.

[+] EnlargeDillon, Hornish
Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR/Getty ImagesAustin Dillon, left, has an eight-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. heading into Saturday's Nationwide Series finale.

"That would be pretty cool," said Hornish, who won three IndyCar championships before migrating to NASCAR with Penske Racing in 2006. "Obviously, it's not in the Cup series, so I wouldn't go, 'Hey, Tony, me and you are the same, buddy.' But outside of that, when you look at the amount of people that came over, I'd been thinking about it for a while, that it was something I wanted to do.

"I ran the IROC races and ran some Nationwide races and pretty soon here come a couple other people who did it and made it look like everybody was trying to do it even though I put a lot of thought and emphasis into wanting to come and do this."

Now he's attempting to stay. Hornish said on Thursday he still had no concrete offers for employment in 2014 but feels "as if we'll be able to make something happen."

Winning a first NASCAR title might help him secure work in the future, but learning from team owner Roger Penske so late in the season that he would not be retained for next season has greatly limited his options for 2014.

Given the amount of time Hornish has invested, he doesn't want to surrender. Hornish began transitioning to NASCAR in 2006 by running two Nationwide races and launched full-time in Sprint Cup in 2008 despite scant stock car experience.

He struggled through three Cup seasons, never finishing better than 28th in points before Penske pared to a two-car fleet, leaving him out of a ride. Hornish undertook partial Nationwide seasons -- winning in Nationwide for the first time in 2011 -- before Penske fielded a full program for him in 2012. He finished fourth in the final standings last season.

While Hornish's potential accomplishment admittedly would not equal Stewart's, his route to a championship was more trying. NASCAR rules allowed virtually all the testing teams were willing to subsidize when Stewart began his transition from IndyCar in 1999, meaning he made innumerable laps in a Joe Gibbs Racing Pontiac preceding a rookie season in which he finished fourth in points.

Austerity measures had been instituted by the time Hornish -- and later other open-wheel drivers Dario Franchitti, AJ Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya and Danica Patrick, among others -- made the switch, preventing teams from testing at tracks that held sanctioned events.

That Stewart is recognized as one of the most talented and successful of his generation skews comparisons, but his successors have struggled to establish a foothold.

"The times I was testing, you could go to Kentucky [Speedway], if you could get there a day it wasn't raining or snowing something like that," Hornish said. "That was kind of difficult and it was basically a place you could test for a mile-and-a-half [track] type stuff."

Stewart, speaking in 2011 about Danica Patrick's transition from open wheel to NASCAR, said the impact of testing restrictions was inconclusive.

"It's an easier transition for some versus others and you've seen guys like Dario Franchitti and Jacques Villeneuve that never figured it out, and these are guys that have won the Indy 500, won championships and are accomplished race car drivers," he said. "So there's no blueprint."

Hornish said it was also to his detriment that his transition coincided with the implementation of a Gen-5 race car that was unfamiliar to his team and then-teammates Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman.

"The 'Car of Tomorrow' made it a little bit difficult because of having two teammates that really didn't know the direction they wanted to head with this car, either," Hornish said. "Neither one of them were where they wanted to be at. I didn't know how to lean on them and I don't know how that would have worked even if I did at that point in time."

Hornish implied on Thursday that he is open to the possibility of running a part-time NASCAR schedule or testing for a team that could benefit him "for the next go-round."

Hornish said Penske -- who is expected to put 19-year-old Ryan Blaney in the No. 12 Ford because he still has time on his contract -- told him "'Don't get too upside-down about this. There are a lot of things that can still happen yet.'"

Hornish said he assured Penske he would do everything within his power to win what would be the team's second Nationwide title since 2010. For team reasons and personal. And as a symbol of how far he believes he came through adversity.

"I think the biggest thing for me, it would sure mean a lot," Hornish said of a championship. "I've come a long way. You want to be at the top level of whatever you're doing and I feel like it would mean a lot to me. My opinion of myself is kind of what matters most."

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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