Yes, it would be easy for Sam Hornish to just give up.
After six seasons of more trials than triumphs in NASCAR, the Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champ lost the Nationwide Series title to Austin Dillon last Saturday night at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
His latest attempt at stock car validation was decided by a mere three points. Hornish remained gracious in defeat. As his boss of the past decade, Roger Penske, enjoyed the Nationwide owners championship celebration with race winner Brad Keselowski, Hornish, 34, put a positive spin on his second-place finish in the points standings and impending unemployment.
But days later, the loss still burned.
“You feel like Charlie Bucket – the little boy from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – when he opens up (the chocolate bar) and the golden ticket’s not there and he says, ‘Yeah, well, the golden ticket probably makes the chocolate taste terrible.’ You want to tell yourself that you really didn’t want it that bad when deep down you do,” Hornish said.
“I had a lot of people tell me, ‘What are you even worried about it for? You’re a three-time IndyCar champion. It’s the Nationwide championship, it’s not like it’s Sprint Cup.’ We’re racecar drivers. We don’t care. If you gave us grocery carts, we’d want to win the championship or win the race because that’s our validation of who we are and what we do as a competitor.”
Hornish isn’t bitter. He knew entering Miami-Homestead with eight-point deficit would be difficult unless Dillon had issues and Hornish’s team executed the perfect race. Although Hornish won the pole and outran the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevy most of night, a late-race caution ended any shot he had of closing the deal.
When the yellow flag waved on Lap 184, Hornish was third with Dillon two positions behind. After 12 agonizing laps of caution, Hornish’s progress was slowed by Kyle Busch spinning his tires on the restart and Hornish dropped to ninth with five laps remaining. Although Hornish finished eighth, Dillon’s 12th-place run secured the title.
Despite the season-tying 12-lap caution and the fact both of his teammates – Keselowski and Joey Logano – finished ahead of the No. 12 Ford, Hornish refused to dwell on what-ifs.
“There were a lot more things than that that kept us from winning the championship,” Hornish said. “For everything that we had going on, there were a lot of really good days and very few bad ones, but when they did (go bad), they were kind of catastrophic. If we minimize one or two of those, we’re not just fighting for the drivers championship, we’re in their for the owners championship as well.
“We learned a lot of things this year and had a lot of fun doing it.”
Hornish was one of just three Nationwide regulars to win a race in 2013. His 16 top-five and 25 top-10 finishes were by far the best on tour.
But with Penske Racing cutting back to one Nationwide team for 2014 and with no plans to expand its Sprint Cup operation, Hornish has known for several months that his decade-long professional relationship with The Captain would conclude at season’s end.
“Roger has given me some opportunities that maybe a lot of people would have said, ‘Why do you do that?’ We came really close to proving a lot of people wrong. Regardless of the final outcome, I think we showed a championship performance this year. We raced with a lot of good guys like Brad and Joey, Kyle Busch and Tony Stewart – and we finished second to a lot of them, we beat some of them and just came up shy of the championship.”
Penske has frequently acknowledged his error in promoting Hornish to Sprint Cup in 2008 instead of guiding him on a progressive path through the Nationwide tour. Communication between driver and crew chief was the greatest challenge for Hornish, who in open-wheel racing had relied on computers to relay the feel he was getting from the car.
However, after Hornish spent most of the past three years in Nationwide – ranking fourth in 2012 and second this season – Penske believes his former Indy star deserves a NASCAR ride.
“To see Sam race (Saturday) at the level he did with Kyle, right there all night, shows what a great racer he is,” Penske said after the event. “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.
“People today want him. 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.”
Hornish doesn’t feel the need to rush into a deal for 2014. After struggling for three Cup seasons in decent equipment for Penske Racing and producing a career best 28th-place finish in points in 2009, he would rather “sit home” than run as a back marker.
“I feel like I’ve come to put myself in a position where I’m just going to bang my head against the wall and not have any opportunity to go out there and win,” he said. “Where I’m at outside of racing, with having a real great family and also having worked real hard to financially secure myself, I do this because I want to do it. I’m not going to do it just to be out there and say I’m a racecar driver. I have a lot of things in my life that I feel real lucky to have. By putting myself into something that’s not capable of winning or not safe enough, I don’t need to do it which is a blessed thing to be able to say.”
Although Hornish’s employment status looked bleak the past few months, the phone has recently started to ring.
“For a while there, it looked like there wouldn’t be any opportunities,” Hornish said. “But isn’t it just that? It’s almost like when you date a girl, you have all these other girls that want to date you and then when you don’t have a girlfriend it’s really hard to find one. …
“(Before) we didn’t have anything; now I have to tell someone no. That is a good thing, but over the past couple of years, not a lot of doors have opened for me, so having to tell anybody no is kind of a hard thing because I know it doesn’t necessarily mean there is going to be that next door open when it happens again. You always feel bad, so you try to treat people with the dignity that they deserve and give yourself the best options moving forward.”