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LEXINGTON, Ohio — A few months removed from a shakeup in the Penske Racing pecking order, Sam Hornish, Jr., says he’s “OK” with his transition back to driving the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
“I like running the Nationwide Series,” the Defiance native said Monday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. “It’s a lot of fun. It gives me an opportunity to still run against a lot of the Sprint Cup competitors. If you can win here, given the right equipment, you can fight for wins over there.”
Hornish leads the NASCAR Nationwide Series with 221 points, two points ahead of Regan Smith, prior to the ToyotaCare 250 on April 26 at Richmond International Raceway. Hornish, however, ran the second half of the 2012 Sprint Cup season in the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil car in place of A.J. Allmendinger, whom NASCAR suspended in July after he tested positive for a banned stimulant.
Yet despite Hornish’s stretch of consistent driving in the final 19 races of the Sprint Cup season, driver Joey Logano joined Penske Racing in September, which facilitated Hornish’s return to the Nationwide Series.
Team owner Roger Penske told NASCAR.com in January that if a Sprint Cup opportunity was available, Hornish would be his first choice.
“I said to [Hornish], ‘I can tell you one thing: We’re going to give you the best car and the best crew chief we can to run in the [Nationwide] Series this year,’ ” Penske said. “The goal … is to win the championship. Not second or third, it’s to win the championship. I think he’s got the tools and the ability to do it now.”
Two days after he finished 34th Saturday in the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway — the result of an accident with less than 60 laps to go in the race — Hornish tested his Ford Mustang on the 2.4-mile road course in Lexington in preparation for the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 on Aug. 17 at the central Ohio track.
According to a Mid-Ohio spokesman, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 will be the first NASCAR-sanctioned event to run in Ohio since 2008, when Mansfield Motor Sports Park hosted a Craftsman Truck Series Race. The Nationwide Children’s Hospital 200 is also the first NASCAR-sanctioned stock-car event in Ohio since Powell Motor Speedway in Columbus hosted an event in 1953.
The August Nationwide date became available after race promoter Francois Dumontier announced in October that Montreal would no longer host a Nationwide race.
“An opening that worked at both the track and NASCAR became available on the August date,” said Mid-Ohio president Craig Rust, whose facility has a one-year contract to host the Nationwide race. “So we jumped at it. But once those discussions started to happen, they went very quickly.”
The move gives Hornish, a three-time IndyCar champion, a chance to drive in his home state.
“This fills a need that I feel has kind of been a long time coming to NASCAR, to get a race in Ohio,” Hornish said. “I remember coming down here as a kid, and I’d stand along the fence watching IndyCars or sitting in the grandstands. This is my kind of race track.”
Mid-Ohio is the third road course on the Nationwide schedule, and Hornish seemed to find his strength last season on winding courses, including a fifth-place Sprint Cup finish last August at Watkins Glen.
“It took me a while to figure out exactly what to be able to do to run well [in stock cars],’ Hornish said of driving on the road courses. “But then, for whatever reason last year, we didn’t do anything special, but I kind of got into the rhythm of where we needed to be.”
Still, Hornish is holding a second job, in addition to driving on the Nationwide circuit — he’s an in-studio commentator and analyst for the SPEED Network. But he isn’t considering a long-term future in broadcasting just yet. He wants to get back to driving on Sundays.
“I can’t say that I enjoy having that time off, because I still want to do something,” Hornish said. “But it gives me a little more time to watch the races, and I have to be informed about what’s going on, so when I do those things, it really gives me an opportunity to study the racing, and it makes me a little more better to do some of the interview skills and things like that.
“Although,” he added, with a smirk, “I haven’t showed it today.”
Contact Rachel Lenzi at:
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