Roger Penske and Sam Hornish Jr. have been together for nearly 300 races over the last decade.
They have celebrated an IndyCar championship as well as wins in two series across nine states. They have been dominate and disappointed. They have turned a working relationship into a lifelong friendship.
So parting ways won’t be easy.
Hornish drove his final race for Penske when he finished 12th in the Nationwide Series season finale on Saturday at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Hornish came up three spots shy of going out with a championship.
He ended up second to Austin Dillon in the final standings. Sprint Cup regular Kyle Busch won the race. Hornish was near the front for much of the 200 laps, but faltered down the stretch on worn tires.
Now, he faces an uncertain future.
”To see Sam race tonight at the level he did with Kyle, right there all night, shows what a great racer he is,” Penske said. ”My issue with myself is I started him in the Cup level with no practice. One of the greatest open-wheel racers we had in IndyCar. I think maybe I started his career backwards.”
So far, Hornish has no ride set up for 2014. He declined to even talk to Chip Ganassi Racing about replacing Dario Franchitti, the four-time IndyCar champion who abruptly retired earlier this week because of injuries and health concerns.
With Hornish committed to stock-car racing, some wonder where he will land next season.
Penske, though, doesn’t believe Hornish’s NASCAR career is over.
”I think people want him,” said Penske, who still managed to win the Nationwide owners’ championship. ”I think he’s going to have a chance to drive something next year. A couple things out there look quite promising. I would support him always.
”He needs to have a good ride because he’s a quality guy, a family man. Remember, he won an Indy 500 for us. That’s pretty special.”
Indeed, Hornish won the 2006 Indianapolis 500. He won seven other times for Penske in IndyCar. He moved to NASCAR full time in 2008, but has mostly struggled while learning the nuances of stock cars.
He had eight top-10 finishes and led just 55 laps in three years – and he was out of a ride in 2011 when Penske ran out of sponsorship for the project. Hornish ran just 14 races, only one in the Sprint Cup series, that entire year.
He got another shot came when Penske began piecing together sponsorship packages. There was enough money for 20 Cup races in 2012 and a full Nationwide Series schedule. He ran another full Nationwide schedule this year.
But Penske told the 34-year-old Hornish he needs to be racing in the Cup series, where he doesn’t have a spot for his longtime driver.
Hornish hasn’t even hinted about his future, only saying he’d rather be a NASCAR test driver than an IndyCar regular.
”There’s a lot of uncertainty at this point in time, but I feel as if we’ll be able to make something happen,” Hornish said. ”But, like I’ve said in the past, it’s all about trying to position me to move forward in some way. I don’t want to take any more steps backward or be in something that’s not going to give me the opportunity to go out there and be competitive and have an opportunity to at least run in the top 10.
”It wouldn’t be optimal to run a part-time schedule, but it might help me out. I might be able to go and do testing. I might be able to learn a lot of other things and to be able to forge forward and to be even better in the next go-round.”