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As Sam Hornish, Jr., pursued a new stock-car racing opportunity, he heard the echoes of an unusual outcry.
“A lot of people complained that I didn’t get to race enough,” Hornish said, laughing. “But it’s not always my choice. I’m doing what I can do to get out and win, and give the fans something to cheer about. I’ve had a strong response from a lot of fans who want to see me race more, and I’ve always said I have great fans who have stuck with me through a lot of different things.”
In spite of finishing second in the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide standings, Hornish was phased out of Penske Racing’s 2014 NASCAR plans due to the economics of the sport. Less than a month before the birth of his son, Hornish got another chance to drive. Now, Hornish returns this weekend to a site he considers his home track. The Defiance native will drive the No. 20 SunEnergy1 Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Nationwide Ollie’s Bargain Outlet 250 on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
Hornish, 35, is driving a partial Nationwide schedule this season, splitting time with Busch in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota. Hornish has made three starts this season, including a win May 18 at Iowa Speedway and a fifth-place finish May 3 at Talladega Superspeedway, and drove for Denny Hamlin in the No. 11 Toyota in the Auto Club 400 on March 23 in Fontana, Calif., finishing 17th in the 43-car field.
His partial 2014 schedule has a two-fold purpose: first, he’s searching for the right opportunity to return to full-time stock-car driving. Second, with a 4-month old son and two school-aged daughters, he has parental responsibilities in addition to career responsibilities.
“When you go from two to three children, you have two older ones who are now in activities and want to spend time with their friends,” said Hornish, a former IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion. “They’re going to school and playing sports, and there’s a few days a week where they have so much going on. It would have made things very difficult for [wife] Crystal to have a newborn and have all that going on.
“I look at the blessings of it. This might not be what I wanted, career-wise, but it’s been wonderful, personally.”
Hornish isn’t driving at MIS under the flag of a local team this year. A 10-year partnership with Detroit-based Penske Racing ended after last season; Hornish finished second to Austin Dillon for the 2013 Nationwide title but Penske Racing could not come up with money to continue sponsoring Hornish’s Nationwide team in 2014.
That ultimately prompted Hornish’s move to Joe Gibbs Racing — announced a month before the birth of his third child, Samuel III, in February.
“You want to get those things firmed up in June or July, and it didn’t matter if we won a championship or not,” Hornish said. “It was strictly a money thing, and based on the economics of racing, and I can’t fault anybody for that.”
Hornish also took advantage of an opportunity to see where he stacks up as a driver with Busch, the primary driver of the Monster Energy Toyota. Hornish uses the same equipment, the same crew chief, and the same race-day resources as Busch, who has won three of the 10 Nationwide races he’s driven in this season.
“To look at the success the 54 car has had, both last year and this year, we’ve won four races between Kyle and myself,” Hornish said. “It puts me in really good equipment that allows me to compete for wins. I wanted this opportunity.”
Fox Sports 1’s NASCAR Race Day reported Sunday that Hornish is in negotiations with Wood Brothers to return to driving on the Sprint Cup circuit on a part-time basis in 2015, and while Hornish did not comment directly on the report, he acknowledged that his long-term future in racing will come on his terms.
“I want to do it the right way,” Hornish said. “I’ve been there and I’ve done it in a way that was unpreferable. Now, getting to run in the Sprint Cup races and to fill in on the No. 22 [in 2012], I feel like I’ve got what it takes to run on the Cup side. I don’t want to go out and not have the opportunity to win. No matter what I do, full-time or part-time, I want to say I can go out there and win.”