Hornish still Penske’s team player

Sam Hornish has never taken racing for granted.

So when the full-time Nationwide Series driver was presented with a second chance in the Sprint Cup Series to drive the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge this season, he jumped at the opportunity.

After AJ Allmendinger was suspended for failing a drug test at Kentucky on June 29, Penske Racing recruited Hornish to drive the No. 22 car the following week at Daytona.

Six weeks later, however, Hornish still didn’t feel secure in the seat. When team owner Roger Penske told Hornish he would continue in the substitute role, the driver was somewhat taken aback.

“Roger said, ‘Are you ready to go to Bristol?” Hornish said during an appearance at Kansas Speedway on Tuesday. “I said, ‘yeah, I’m going for the Nationwide race.’ He said, ‘yeah, you’re running the Cup race, too.’ I said, ‘Well you didn’t tell me that.’ He said, ‘I didn’t want you to get comfortable.’

“I said, ‘I haven’t been comfortable in four years’ — it might even be longer than that. I sleep well at night because I work hard during the day. That’s about the only reason for that. I don’t ever feel like anything is a given, for sure, anymore."

He added that he is just thankful the opportunities that he does have.

Since winning consecutive IndyCar titles with Panther Racing in 2001 and 2002, Hornish has been a wanted man. But one of the greatest goals for the 33-year-old Defiance, Ohio native was to win the Indianapolis 500. He knew if he followed the footsteps of his heroes Rick Mears and Danny Sullivan to Penske Racing, it would offer him the greatest opportunity. So after the 2003 season, he made the move.

“I turned down a lot of people to come to Penske Racing,” Hornish said. “People don’t forget about that. I had offers from every good Cup team that you can think of before I went to Penske Racing to try to win the Indianapolis 500. And that stuff may have all hurt me now, but I did those things to win the Indy 500 – and I did that. Sometimes you have to give up, to get something.

“If it means you had to tell Rick Hendrick, ‘no.’ A lot of people say you don’t get an opportunity to tell Roger Penske ‘no’ twice. You don’t get an opportunity to tell a lot of people ‘no’ twice. But that was one of the toughest things was having to tell Rick Hendrick I couldn’t be a part of his team. I don’t know how things would have turned out if I had gone over there in 2004, but I wouldn’t have won the Indianapolis 500. I know that much.”

Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t the team courting the then 25-year-old. But he knows joining Penske was the right decision at the time. As an open-wheel racer, nothing could top a Penske Racing ride. Hornish proved that in 2006 when he won the title and four of 14 races – including the Indianapolis 500 from the pole.

“We talked to DEI (Dale Earnhardt Inc.),” Hornish added. “We talked to Hendrick. Actually, the day I told Panther I wouldn’t be returning, I got a call from J.D. Gibbs (president of Joe Gibbs Racing). But before all those offers – except one – came on the table, I was already signed up with Roger. I already knew where I was going. It was, ‘I can’t do anything different at this point in time,’ not that I would have. Cause I wanted to win Indianapolis and that gave me the best opportunity. Not just winning Indy, to say that you drove for Roger Penske . . . it was tough to tell people ‘no.’”

Now Hornish finds himself at another career crossroads. While he dabbled in NASCAR in 2006 and 2007, the following three seasons after that Hornish gave his all while running full-time in the Sprint Cup Series. However, with limited stock car experience, his best results came in 2009 when he posted two top-fives, seven top 10s and finished 28th in the point standings.

Due to a lack of sponsorship in 2011, Hornish ran just one Cup race and 13 Nationwide events. But it was in the Nationwide Series where the driver and owner both agreed that Hornish could have used a little more season, and he finally earned a breakthrough win at Phoenix last November.

Currently, Hornish is campaigning for the NNS title where he’s fourth in the point standings, but he has no guarantees for 2013. Since Hornish has invested well and remained frugal over the years, it’s allowed him to be more selective with his options. For his next venture, that means going “forward” and not taking “a step backwards.”

“I’d like to be in a full-time Cup ride but I don’t know if that will happen,” Hornish said. “You have to adjust your wants and needs. . . . For me, this is all because I want to do it. I don’t need to do it. I still want to get paid for it when I do it, but I’ve worked very hard to save a lot of my money.

"I didn’t have a Ferrari or my own plane or boats and stuff like that because primarily, I’m cheap. Second of all, I knew that it might not always be there.”

Still, Hornish is “not happy” that his recent performance did not earn him any more than a consideration in the No. 22 Dodge for 2013, but he’s not “comfortable” discussing the issue in detail given his relationship with Penske and the organization.

“Roger has been real loyal to me on one hand,” Hornish said. “On the other hand, I’ve kind of been overlooked on that Shell/Pennzoil car a couple of times already. I can understand all of it. But it does make you think about what your future is going to be.

“I don’t know what all the reasons are but what I want to believe is that they were close to a third Cup car around. They were going to be able to parlay that because we were going to take some of our Nationwide sponsors. . . . I’m not sure what will happen.”

For now, Hornish will continue being the consummate team player. Over the last eight years, the driver has been an integral part of the NASCAR program, particularly when it comes to testing. Hornish logged a remarkable amount of miles testing for Penske Racing whether it was calculating fuel mileage or shaking down electronic fuel injection.

And with his fellow Penske racer Brad Keselowski leading the point standings, Hornish will do whatever he can to help the organization win the championship – up to a point.

“I can do a lot of things, but what will I do?” Hornish asked. "This weekend I’m there to be the pusher – if he needs it. Figure out how to help him get through this race as best as I can and get the most points out of it. Now whether that’s riding around in the back or trying to get up front . . . I’m looking forward to having the opportunity to help.

“With the amount of testing that I’ve done, I’ve already been a little bit of a help. I did a lot of the EFI testing last year and a lot of that really helped us out. I did a tremendous amount of fuel mileage stuff back when I was running the 77 car and that’s stuff that continues to help out.

“But I’m not wrecking anybody to help him out.”