Pinch hitter: Hornish Jr. excels as last-minute fill-in for Hamlin

Sam Hornish Jr. scrambled before Sunday's Auto Club 400 to prepare to drive Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota.

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When Sam Hornish Jr. headed to Auto Club Speedway Sunday morning, he did so as a spectator and possible replacement driver for Matt Kenseth, whose wife is pregnant.

Yet when news broke that Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin would miss the race due to a sinus issue, Hornish was tapped to drive the No. 11 Toyota.

Running only a limited schedule for JGR in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, Hornish was forced to scramble at the last minute and focus on running 500 miles.

He first learned of the situation while visiting with former boss Roger Penske just over an hour before the command to fire engines. Once he received the text informing him Hamlin was officially out, Hornish went to work trying to prepare for the task at hand.

"I ran over to the hauler, asked Darian (Grubb, crew chief) what was up, they sent me over to sit in the car to make sure the seat insert was close — or even a possibility — and how the belts fit," Hornish said.

"We had pretty much a full kit to go in (Kenseth’s) car," he said. "We had the full kit, minus the seat insert to go in Denny’s car."

Denny Hamlin misses Auto Club 400 with sinus issue

Although it was a tight fit in the shoulders, the situation inside the car was good enough. From then on, Hornish focused on preparing his body for the intensity of 500 miles at Auto Club Speedway by hydrating with water and finish a healthy meal.

Hornish admitted everything took place so quickly that he was nearly shaking when he got to the car. 

"Ever had the adrenalin really kick in, where you almost get to the point where you almost start shaking?" he asked. "As soon as I got over there and sat in the car, that started to kick in. Usually you don’t get too much of that in the race because your brain knows you’re going to race.

"It’s almost like a panic because, I’ve only had one bottle of water this morning, I only ate breakfast — I didn’t eat the breakfast I would’ve eaten had I known I was going the race — do we have all the things, is Denny going to be able to go, am I going to fit in the seat?"

While he knew the nutritional aspect and seat situation were "not optimal" for the race, Hornish showed why he is one of the most trusted drivers in the sport.

With no time behind the wheel of the No. 11, Hornish climbed in to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start since April 2013, and first start in any car since the Nationwide season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway in November.

Making the transition a bit easier, Hornish was able to talk with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch to discuss what he expected in Sunday’s race.

This is not the first time Hornish has been tapped as a replacement driver just moments before the start of a race, however.  In July 2012, Hornish was named the replacement driver for Team Penske’s No. 22 after AJ Allmendinger failed a pre-race drug test at Daytona International Speedway.

In that instance, however, Hornish had a bit more time to prepare and was facing 400 miles around a superspeedway. With the abruptness and intensity of the situation Sunday in Fontana, Hornish admitted his "nerves were a little bit more shot."

"I was probably a little more jacked up (Sunday)," he said. "I was thinking about, OK, what do I have to do here? Am I going to be able to make it through the race? Man, my shoulders don’t feel good with how I’m sitting in the car. And all these different things. I’m like, ‘€˜Alright, just breathe, let it go. It will be fine, it will work itself out.’"

For Hornish, though, all of the nerves and uncertainties went away once he was in the car. Starting at the rear of the field, Hornish and the Darian Grubb-led team worked throughout the race to overcome the last-minute setback.

Despite nearly wrecking in the closing laps, Hornish brought the No. 11 Toyota home in the 17th spot. 

"I feel like for never working with any of the people I worked with, it went off pretty good," he said. "We finished 17th, but I feel like we were good enough to be in the top 10. We just got ran over at the restart, made our way up through the field, we got run over a little bit again on that green-white-checkered restart."

While Hamlin was released from a local hospital and will undergo further evaluation this week, Hornish expects the Virginia-native to be back in the car for Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

"As much as I’d like to be in the car, I feel like the best thing for the organization is to give Denny the chance to go out and race Martinsville — which is one of his best tracks and give him the opportunity to get in the Chase," he said. "As much as I’d like to be in there, I know for the betterment of JGR that it’s better to have him in the car."

In the meantime, Hornish is slated to make his first NASCAR Nationwide Series start for JGR at Talladega Speedway on May 3.