IndyCar Champ Sam Hornish Jr. Chased Greatness in Move to NASCAR

Getting a few minutes Sam Hornish Jr. is a little easier these days than it was back when he was winning Indy Racing League championships or busting his butt trying to break through in NASCAR.

These days, catching up with Hornish is more like tugging on Super Dad’s cape.

“I’m sitting in the car, looking to the left and waiting for the girls’ dance competition to start,” Hornish told Autoweek at the start of a recent interview. “And looking to the right, I’m seeing people going in and out to get their COVID vaccinations. It’s an interesting dynamic.”

Much like Hornish’s career, which took a curious turn a little more than a decade ago when the three-time IndyCar champion announced he was switching to NASCAR. Switching from the top level of IndyCar to NASCAR (or the other way around, Jimmie Johnson) is not easy. Not even for champions.

Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IRL champion, was at the top of the IndyCar world when he made his moved that shocked the racing world. Critics will point out that Hornish’s championships of 2001, 2002 and 2006 came during the sport’s split between rival IRL and Champ Car.

That said, Hornish beat some impressive competition along the way and was the real deal.

In 2006, Hornish tied Dan Wheldon for the points championship but was declared the champion based on a most-wins tiebreaker (Hornish won four times that year, while Wheldon won twice). Helio Castroneves finished third, and Scott Dixon was fourth. That’s some pretty fair company.

In Hornish’s Indy 500 win for team owner Roger Penske in 2006, the next six racers across the line that day were Marco Andretti, Michael Andretti, Wheldon, Tony Kanaan, Dixon and Dario Franchitti. Nothing cheap about that win.

Then, two years later, a funny thing happened on the way to IndyCar greatness, or super greatness as it were, as Hornish turned in his Indy car license and made a run at NASCAR.

After making a few Xfinity (then Busch) and Cup Series starts in 2006 and 2007 (a transitional year in which Hornish says he ran 42 races between IndyCar, ARCA, IMSA, Xfinity and Cup), Hornish left IndyCar for good in 2008 to run full time in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Hornish raced in NASCAR through 2017 with little success on the Cup side—just three top-five finishes in 167 starts. His best finish was a fourth-place run at Pocono in 2009. On the Xfinity side, it was a little better with five wins and 38 top-five finishes in 120 starts. He finished runner-up in the Xfinity Series championship to Austin Dillon in 2013.

No, the NASCAR experience wasn’t what Hornish, a 19-time winner in Indy cars, envisioned when he made the decision to trade in his Indy car for a stock car.

“At the time, I had the most wins of anyone in the (IRL), the highest win percentage,” Hornish said. “Instead of focusing on that, I started thinking, man, if I could go win the Daytona 500, that puts me in the category with A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti. Whereas if I win the Coke 600 after winning the Indy 500, I’m a category all my own.

“Mobil 1 was ready to go Cup racing again, and Roger had the sponsorship.”

Hornish was coming into NASCAR with Penske not long after the retirement of future NASCAR Hall of Famer Rusty Wallace. Wallace left the Cup Series after 2005, and Hornish ran his first Xfinty race (then it was the Busch Series) for Penske in 2006. Hornish, who was used to winning, finished 36th and 43rd (out of 43) in his two Xfinity races to close out the ’06 season in his first audition to fill Wallace’s shoes.

“I said right from the very beginning that I was coming into NASCAR at this point and time where Roger had never won a Daytona 500 or a NASCAR championship,” Hornish said. “Of course, I’d love to be the guy to do it for him. So, my story, there was a lot of facets to it. One was to trying to achieve greatness for myself, another was trying to help my boss—somebody that has done a lot for me—be able have that success, hopefully with me. But if (that success) wasn’t going to be for me, at least I’d have a part in it.”

In 2008, Hornish raced the full season in NASCAR Cup in what would be a historic season for Penske. The team owner won his first Daytona 500 with Ryan Newman. Kurt Busch finished second for Penske in that race, while Hornish finished 15th sandwiched between 14th-place Kevin Harvick and 16th-place Dale Jarrett.

“Personally, there was a lot of struggle going on for me at that point in time,” Hornish said. “Really, it wasn’t until 2012 that I settled down in a lot of ways and gave myself an opportunity to commit to NASCAR like the way that I should have.

In 2012, Penske would reach another milestone, winning the season championship with Brad Keselowski. Hornish was again a Team Penske footnote, starting 20 of the 36 races and finishing in the top five just once as a substitute driver for A.J. Allmendinger, who was suspended for violating the series’ substance abuse policy.

“My first Daytona 500, while I didn’t push Ryan to victory lane, Kurt did,” Hornish said. “Then, I was filling in for Allmendinger when he was having his problem. When Brad won the championship that year, I had a lot of opportunities to help take care of Brad on restarts. Not that I got in the way or anything, but I’d do anything I could to help the 2 car out.

“When it was all over, I got to stand on the stage and celebrate the championship. The championship ring says Brad Keselowski on it, but I have one myself that the team gave me.”

Hornish walked away from NASCAR, winless at the Cup level, at age 38.

“From 2008 until the beginning of 2011, I looked at it like, if things don’t go well here, I’ll just go back to IndyCar,” Hornish said. “Then I realized through 2008, ’09 and ‘10 and how all that played out, that I let myself down, and that if I just went back I’d regret it. I needed to stay, stick that out, and figure out how to be competitive and win races over there.”

There was another, deeper, reason that Hornish stuck it out in NASCAR.

“That was I believe where God wanted me to be at,” he said. “The IndyCar program, especially after Dan Wheldon’s passing (in 2011), that day there was something inside of me that said, ‘You’re done with that, Sam. There’s nothing that you have to prove by going back there.’ “

Hornish, 41, knows he’s younger than a lot of the guys still racing at the top levels of IndyCar and NASCAR. That’s something even some of his fans near his current home (which is not far from his boyhood home) in Northwest Ohio have trouble wrapping their head around.

“We’re remodeling a house, and I was picking up some appliances,” Hornish said about a recent shopping trip. “And the guy goes, are you Sam Hornish? The guy goes, ‘I grew up watching your dad race.’

“My dad never raced. This guy I’m talking to is no more than like five years older than me, maybe 10. Maybe I just look really young, because he’s thinking about the fact that he was in his mid-20s watching me race. It’s kind of neat because even though my dad wishes he could have raced and wanted to race, he never got the opportunity.

“I guess I just look that youthful. Sometimes, I want to correct them, but at the end of the day, maybe that’s too long of a discussion. It might make them feel bad. I’ll just let them think what they want to think and I’ll just go about my day.”

Having so much success in one discipline and so little in another is something Hornish still dissects.

“There was a lot of things that I could look back on and go, I needed this or that piece,” Hornish said. “You think about it. A pit crew is important in IndyCar, but you’re changing four lug nuts and you’ve got one guy doing the fuel at that time. A good pit stop versus a bad one with 22 cars in the field doesn’t kill you.

“Two-tenths extra in the pits on a Cup pit stop, you lose four spots. Then there’s the relationship with the crew chief. In IndyCar, I could adjust the weight jacker, I could adjust the anti-roll bar and even the fuel mixture. So, there was a lot I could do inside the car to affect it.

“In NASCAR, I had to relay it. The biggest thing was, if I had to throw the car on my back to try to win these races, I’d do it. If I hit the wall going for it, at least I can go home at the end of the day and say I did everything I could do. It really wasn’t until 2012 that a friend of mine told me, he said, ‘Well, you know if the car’s not there and you bring it home in 35th, it’s the crew chief’s fault. If you’re running 25th and you try to take it to fifth and you wreck it, it’s your fault.

“That was a big thing for me to hear.”

This season, Jimmie Johnson is trying to make the transition from NASCAR to IndyCar—a reverse Hornish, if you will. Johnson, a seven-time Cup champion, has a lot to learn in a short time. Johnson is already 45 years old (yes, four years older than Hornish) and is not planning on giving this new challenge the nearly decade that Hornish gave his second act.

Hornish thinks Johnson has a chance to make this work. After all, Johnson seemed to have no trouble in a Cadillac DPi at this year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, where the No. 48 Ally-sponsored team finished second overall.

“When I ran Indy cars, Scott Dixon was my biggest competitor that wasn’t named Sam Hornish.”

“The cars that he’s running when he runs the IMSA races are a lot closer to an IndyCar than what you would expect, with the way that they feel,” Hornish said. “Obviously, you’ve got the full body in IMSA. When I ran Indy cars, the side pods were inside the wheel. Now, they’re outside the wheels and there’s things that attempt to keep you from climbing on top of another car.

“And now they’ve got an aeroscreen in IndyCar. They’re getting about as close to an IMSA car as they’ve ever been. When you go out there and race with IMSA cars, you’ve got some slower guys that are off the pace, you’ve got some guys in your own class that are doing good. There’s a lot of things you can look at.”

Hornish offered up an X-factor for those who might want to compare the two drivers and their switch from champion in one series to rookie in another.

“I’ll tell you one thing that Jimmie has, that I didn’t have when I made the switch or that he has an advantage over me,” Hornish said. “He has 15 years of maturity. When I ran Indy cars, Scott Dixon was my biggest competitor that wasn’t named Sam Hornish.”

Then there’s the art of relationship building, which according to Hornish, is decidedly different in the two series.

“Jimmie is going to Ganassi and he has Dixon to teach him stuff,” Hornish said. “We’ll see whether Dixie gives him all the information or saves a little bit for himself. In IndyCar, I didn’t need help from other drivers to be able to win. I didn’t have to share notes with them. I didn’t have to be buddy, buddy with them.

“You can’t bump somebody out of the way in an Indy car, normally, and keep going. Whereas in NASCAR, the more friendly you can play, it can help you. And I never really learned to play that game very well. I can’t bring it to myself to ever be fake with people. I don’t want to talk to somebody and make them think that I like them just because I want them to treat me right on the racetrack.

“I would rather have them treat me right on the racetrack because they respect me and not that I kissed up to them. I’m not saying that any of that goes on, but I just didn’t know how to play that game. A lot of those guys are going to be interested to see how Jimmie runs.”

Hornish is happy with how things turned out. Being home this time of year and being able to play Super Dad and make those dance competitions is pretty nice.

“When people ask how did you feel about how your career wound up, I say, ‘ I won the Indianapolis 500.’ One time a few years ago, I looked that up, there was only 560 people in the course of history that have even raced in that race. The number of winners goes down drastically.

“It’s been neat.”

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