Motorsport.com spoke with the former winner of the Indy 500 as he opens up about his fight to keep a foothold in the pinnacle of stock car racing.
Sam Hornish Jr. is a three-time IndyCar champion, the 2006 winner of the Indy 500, a three-time victor in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, and the newest driver for Richard Petty at the Cup level. His journey from passing Marco Andretti as they drag-raced to the line in that famous 500 to the moment when he was standing in that No. 9 hauler with me has been filled with adversity.
No turning back
The thing about Hornish that I find interesting is his unwavering desire to be a NASCAR star. Unlike many open-wheelers, he didn't come here for fun. NASCAR is where he wanted to be and in his mind, there was no turning back.
"This is what I wanted to do when I made the decision," he told Motorsport.com "I wasn't coming here with the mindset of just doing this for a couple years. I wanted to drive stock cars and to have an opportunity to be over here and to be successful."
"The first few years were pretty tough. There were things I didn't know and things the team couldn't help me out with. We weren't 100% right by each other, and to do it all over again, it would have been different. But sometimes you got to go and learn all those things. That was a working progress of getting back to the Cup Series."
Clawing back to Cup
After three years driving for Team Penske at the Cup level, Hornish was ousted from his place in Cup, but instead of becoming discouraged and turning back towards his open-wheel niche, he continued to fight for his right to remain in NASCAR. Roger Penske gave him a place in an Xfinity car, which he drove to his first NASCAR win in November of 2011 at Phoenix. In 2013, he came within arm's reach of the championship, losing out by just three points to Austin Dillon. While driving a partial schedule for KBM in 2014, Hornish saw an opportunity and jumped at it.
I had so much success in IndyCar, I felt that if I didn't have that success over here, it would have been a knock on the sport
Sam Hornish Jr.
"Last year driving a partial schedule, we went around and talked to anybody we could talk to and towards the end of August, we started hearing rumors that Marcos may not be returning. We got a couple opportunities to talk with the King and a couple people from RPM and figure out what they were looking at for 2015. That went on for a couple months and now, here we are!"
"This situation played out as best as I think it could," Hornish explained. "This organization isn't exactly where it wants to be but we can grow a lot together. With a lot of the things we did in the off-season, moving to a new shop, hiring some more people, hanging our own bodies ... Taking some more control so we can get both cars in the Chase."
What made it so hard?
There's no questioning Hornish's ability, so what about the transition from open-wheel to stock cars that threw so many champions for a curve? To me surprise, it wasn't the car under him that Hornish found difficult to deal with, but the man holding the steering wheel.
"It wasn't as much as the car as it was my attitude towards it. I had so much success in IndyCar, I felt that if I didn't have that success over here, it would have been a knock on the sport. I overdid a lot of things trying to carry the car, getting myself in trouble. I wasn't thinking down the road, more of what's going to give us instant gratification today."
"You have to be smart enough not to ask too much out of the car. It's good to be able to take a 15th place car and finish 12th, but if you try for 10th, you'll get in trouble. The more you can take the car a little further is always good and squeeze a little more out of it but not too much. You can't force the issue like you can in IndyCar. There, I could do a lot of adjustments from inside the car in order to get it closer to where I wanted it to be. It was kind of tough to let go of some of that control."
"Being able to let myself rely on other people has helped me out a bit"
My main focus is NASCAR. Indy 500 ... Hopefully I'll stay in a job long enough so I won't have to worry about that (laughs)
Sam Hornish Jr.
Speaking of in-car adjustments ... NASCAR will now allow drivers to to make track bar adjustments during the season, a change welcomed by many.
"It's a small change but still a change. It gives an adjustablility that hopefully, will mean a lot of good things. A lot of crew chiefs are pretty excited about it after so many years of getting yelled at for messing up the car, now the drivers get to mess it up themselves!"
So what are the prospects for 2015? Can RPM be a real threat to make the Chase?
"The tough thing is we're getting going in with no testing, so we really don't know. It's not all about winning either, consistency is still key. There are a lot of tracks I enjoy going to and that I feel we have a chance of running strong at ... And Newman only had two top tens going into the Chase last year.
Being the versatile racer he is, would Hornish ever be tempted to pull a Kurt Busch and attempt the double or tackle the Rolex 24?
"My main focus is NASCAR. Indy 500 ... Hopefully I'll stay in a job long enough so I won't have to worry about that (laughs). Rolex 24 is definitely something that interests me. If I can accomphlish my goals here, I would like to run for the overall win over there, I love road racing."