[media-credit id=24 align=”alignright” width=”226″][/media-credit]Since things changed dramatically in the Penske Racing camp back in early July at Daytona, no one would have thought differently if Sam Hornish Jr.’s performance started to slip. The Nationwide Series driver quickly found himself going from worrying solely on his championship hopes to doing double duty for the past month. Sometimes flying from state to state, bouncing between cars and teams.
That could have happened but Hornish hasn’t missed a beat. His NNS is still on the right track as he contends for the championship; gaining on the leaders, again, Saturday following another top five finish. Coming after Hornish captured his first NASCAR pole earlier in the day.
“Little wild. I raced with Carl [Edwards] and Kyle [Busch] most of the day and they were beating each other up pretty good,” Hornish said afterwards. “I had fun having the ability to be in the front row seat to it and the benefit of it a couple times. It’s nice to have cars that run as good as they do, the Penske guys are really continuing to go above and beyond with what they give as far as racecars go.”
His third place finish came after a hard fought and fun day for Hornish. He led 15 laps and was running behind Cup drivers Edwards, Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski for much of the event. Never finding himself far out of their tire tracks, ready to pounce if the door opened. He was there on a restart with less than five laps to go, sitting third but found himself unable to advance. Settling for being the highest finishing NNS regular and his first top 10 at Watkins Glen but his ninth consecutive top 10 finish.
The worst part of Hornish’s day being that he couldn’t deliver Penske a win when his cars led the most laps – 59 of the 82. Yet, he knows that third is nothing to sneeze at, especially behind Cup drivers. Feeling he’s “got to be happy” with what he earned but always wanting more.
“You have some of the best guys in the business, plus the points don’t matter to them, so you have a double threat,” said Hornish on racing Cup drivers. “The restarts were the biggest thing. Just trying to get through the restarts, I felt like we probably gave up a few positions here and there just trying to be overly cautious. That’s what you have to do.
“I felt like today was the day that we were going to have an opportunity to gain on the championship points lead. When we have days like this and can be smart about the things that we do, it always helps to have a good handling racecar to allow you to do that. We need to win races but we know we need to get top-fives and be consistent before that happens.
“You don’t need to win every race to win the championship. You just have to be smart and that’s what we’ve done so far.”
Winless this season, Hornish is using the road courses as his ace in the hole. Whereas his competition has found Victory Lane, Hornish continues to outrun them on the left and right hand tracks. He did so in Road America back in June, finishing fifth, and at Watkins Glen.
Good news is that the series has another one next weekend. Montreal is the third and final road course on the NNS schedule. Heading into the event the No. 12 PPG Dodge team sit third in points, a career best, just 24 markers behind the leader. The closest they’ve been all season.
It will be even closer if Hornish can find himself in Victory Lane for the second time in his NNS career. But in order to do that, he’ll need to better execute late race restarts. On Saturday he was outsmarted by the competition, specifically Edwards the leader, whom he felt slowed the restart down. Hornish wanted to go and started to, only to have to check up as Edwards took off.
“Racing there with Brad and Carl and Kyle feels good when we can take our PPG Dodge and be that competitive,” said Hornish. “I’m really thankful for what the guys at the Penske shop do to these cars. The engine shop today gave me a great car.
“I made a mistake on a shift and didn’t know if the engine was going to make it all day long. I’m thankful for Nationwide Insurance for what they do for the series. A great day for sure.”
Edwards won the race. Hornish won in the bigger picture. Something that seemed a bit of a long shot when the season started, yet he continues to slowly climb, scratch and claw his way back to the top. Fighting for a championship in one series and fighting for a second chance in another.