Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Sam Hornish Jr. Adjusts to Limited Schedule, Life Away From Track

Sam Hornish Jr. has won everything the Indy Racing League has to offer, including multiple championships and the Indianapolis 500. But even for such an accomplished open wheeler, Hornish’s transition to stock cars was harder than most; instead of spending extensive time in developmental series, Hornish all but jumped straight into a Sprint Cup ride at Penske Racing.

After three years running on NASCAR’s premier circuit, Hornish found himself on the wrong side of the sponsorship fence for 2011, instead driving only a limited Nationwide Series schedule for the Penske organization. That said, Hornish is still looking for a new car to drive himself, as well as carving out a meaningful role as a teammate while Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski move ahead. Frontstretch caught up with Hornish at Daytona to discuss the challenges cutting back will pose in the season to come.

Bryan Davis Keith, Frontstretch: You’re making a new home in the Nationwide Series for 2011. What’s on your mind as we prepare to take the first laps at Daytona?

Sam Hornish Jr.: Well obviously this deal is much more limited than we would have liked to see, but we’re excited to be able to do the racing we’re able to. And we’ve got the option to add to it as the season progresses. We’ve got a great Dodge Challenger paint scheme for this weekend and Alliance has always been a great partner, so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.

Keith: The Penske Nationwide program is relatively new, and you’re replacing Justin Allgaier, who was instrumental in getting the program up to speed. What is your role within the program now as a part-time driver?

Hornish: Basically, whatever they need me to do at this point. This is actually the first time I’ve been able to get back in the car since Homestead last year. There’s probably not too many drivers out there today that can say they haven’t been in the car that long, but that’s how long it took I guess to get everything around to where it needed to be. It’s all we can do to go to all the races we can and keep the Nationwide program progressing.

Keith: You spent a couple years to Cup, pretty much jumped into it from IndyCar. Now you’re back where most drivers get their starts. Looking back now, is it possible that the jump was made too fast? Is there anything you could have done differently?

Hornish: There really wasn’t anything we couldn’t have done differently. We had a sponsor that was ready to go full-time Cup racing. If I could do it again, obviously it would have been nice to have done a full year in Nationwide cars. But the biggest thing for us, running a full-time Cup program my first year out, running Nationwide would have meant that much more lap time at the track. Now, I haven’t been in a Nationwide car, except for last year at Homestead, I haven’t been in a Nationwide car in two and a half years. If I would have had the opportunity to get more track time, that would have been the biggest thing.

Keith: How much of a difference is there driving the new Nationwide car as opposed to the old ones?

Hornish: Well, I mean we’re at Daytona, on a new surface that’s extremely smooth and probably the smallest plate anyone has run in a long time, so horsepower has been really tapered in these cars. Now you’re going to see a lot of bump drafting and our noses are not nearly as flat as what the Cup cars are, and the rear bumper bars per the Nationwide rules are a lot softer than the Cup cars.

The front ends don’t fit together as well, plus the rear ends being softer, pushing is going to bend the bars really quickly. Plus in the Cup cars, you see them ducking out to get some air, that’s going to be really hard to do in these cars. It’s going to be a lot different. But with this new car, Texas is going to be my first race with this new style car, and I’m really looking forward to it.

Keith: Looking at this season, you’re running essentially the schedule of a development driver. How do you combine the perspective of being a former Cup driver with still learning stock cars?

Hornish: We’re going to try really hard to perform, but if you look at our team, all the guys on our team have different jobs as their main job, even down to our PR guy. Everyone is kind of drug in from a different place to make these weekends we are running happen. It’s going to be tough because you don’t get the fluid working relationship with the guys that you get, and that’s what you have to have sometimes. I’m looking forward to it for sure, but there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to overcome as well.

Keith: Is IndyCar in your future for this season?

Hornish: I don’t think so. I’m smart enough to say that I won’t say something won’t happen. If I were to do something it would probably be at Indianapolis, but if you look at it, one of the races we’re scheduled to run this season is at Charlotte the night before the 500, so that would make that pretty difficult. I’m looking at this season as a year to sit back and learn. We’re going to really try and grow some of the sponsors that are new to the team, that have never had an opportunity to be in racing before, a chance to get their feet wet and grow with us.

On the flip side of that, to be able to spend a little bit more time with my family – I mean, I’ve been gone so much the better part of 10, 15 years racing everywhere. Having the opportunity to spend more time with them is a good thing, but I’d like to be able to do a little more racing.

Keith: With the testing rules in place, are you going to be able to do any? With the restrictions, what does that do to your ability to get seat time?

Hornish: Well, there’s not enough. I would have liked to be able to do some testing in the offseason. When things pick up I’m sure I’ll get to do some Cup testing for Brad and for Kurt, when they’re away busy with their sponsor obligations or they’ve been away from home too long. A lot of the testing that’s been done over the last couple of years, I’ve done quite a bit of it on the Cup side. I enjoy going out and doing that, and I wouldn’t mind being able to go and find something and bring it to the team.

Keith: As it stands, which is more important, getting back to a full-time ride or getting back to Sprint Cup?

Hornish: Well, I’d like to get back to a full-time ride for sure and it’d be nice to be in the Sprint Cup Series. But as of right now, the way the economy is we’re probably not going to find enough money to go do that. And there’s not really any new teams or new drivers out there. I think as the economy improves that’s going to bring more and more opportunities. We’re doing what we can do.

Keith: You’ve got Brad and Kurt running Cup. Besides learning, what role do you need to play for them?

Hornish: Well, I worked with Kurt quite a bit the last few years, and as drivers we like a lot of the same things in our racecars. There’s been some things along the way where we found a tenth and that would benefit them. A couple years ago [testing] at Charlotte they were really unhappy with their car. We gave them stuff, they put it in and said, ‘We’re bringing this back.’ They came back and ran second.

That was a great example of a pure ‘we’re going to put this setup in and race’ [moment]. I might not be able to be out there to drive the Cup cars like I want to, but if there’s anything I can do to help them have an opportunity to win a championship, that’s what I’m here for.

About the author

Richmond, Virginia native. Wake Forest University class of 2008. Affiliated with Frontstretch since 2008, as of today the site's first dirt racing commentator. Emphasis on commentary. Big race fan, bigger First Amendment advocate.

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