Up or out: The dilemma facing Sam Hornish Jr.
Despite sitting just eight points out of the Nationwide championship lead, Sam Hornish Jr. faces the distinct possibility of starting 2014 without a ride on either the Nationwide or Sprint Cup levels. He's already had one run in a Sprint Cup car for Roger Penske with less than stellar results. Many of the Nationwide teams have already made their plans for 2014. So Hornish faces the dilemma of needing to move up soon or he may find himself without a chair when the music stops on this year's silly season.
Hornish came into stock car racing with an impeccable open wheel pedigree. He won three series championships in seven full years with IndyCar. After the championships and 19 wins (a ratio of over 10%), there was little left for him to accomplish at that level. He transitioned to NASCAR in 2008, running a full Sprint Cup season after only 13 previous stock car races.
Team owner Roger Penske expected Hornish to suffer but surely he did not expect how bad it would get. His aggressive driving, the hallmark of success in IndyCar, did not translate well. He earned the moniker “Dances With Walls” on the in-race Yahoo chat for his frequent spins and crashes. In his first two seasons combined he led only five laps. Out of 72 possible races, he managed only 27 lead lap finishes over his final two seasons during that stretch. Penske pulled him out of the car in 2011 only to have circumstances pull him back the following year thanks to A.J. Allmendinger's firing. He struggled again with no finishes in the top ten other than a fifth place run at Watkins Glen.
He clearly needed time at a less competitive level if he was to ever gain the skills- and the confidence- needed to be a Sprint Cup driver. So he began running more races at the Nationwide level and broke through with his first NASCAR win near the end of 2011 at Phoenix. He also began running up front more often, leading 107 laps in 13 Nationwide races that year. He continued his climb by finishing fourth in Nationwide points last season and is currently second in points this year. He's also led nearly 500 laps over the first 29 races, showing that his improved results aren't just the product of a few lucky breaks.
Yet as good as Hornish has been over the last two years in the Nationwide car, the success may still be a mirage. Outside of Kyle Busch, the Penske cars have been the class of the field this year. Hornish has only one of the team's 12 Nationwide wins over the course of 2013. The #22 car, piloted largely by Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, has ten wins. Ryan Blaney has a win and a top ten in his two Nationwide races. Penske has to be asking himself just how many wins the #12 might have this year had another driver been behind the wheel.
In fact, he's already asked and answered that question; it seems that Ryan Blaney will be driving the car full time next season. He's expected to be at the Sprint Cup level within the next three years, forcing Penske to either expand to three cars or drop someone from his current lineup. Keselowski is the defending series champion and Logano qualified for this year's Chase; displacing either of those two is highly unlikely. Yet Penske believes that Blaney is indeed that good and he's going to provide Ryan with the opportunity to prove it.
Of course, that opportunity comes with a price. In this case, the price of potentially releasing a defending series champion onto the open market after virtually no effort to keep him on board. It's impossible to question Penske's loyalty to Hornish over the last six years; he's kept the driver in competitive equipment with virtually nothing to show for it prior to the 2011 Phoenix race. Yet even the Captain's patience has its limits. With Blaney pushing from below and Keselowski/Logano pushing from above, those limits have been reached.
The curious thing is that there has been little public discussion of potentially expanding Penske's cup operation now and putting Hornish behind the wheel. Perhaps he's had those discussions with sponsors and simply hasn't found a willing partner. But every public pronouncement on the topic of a third team is a distinct negative from Penske Racing. Outwardly, the team has said they're just fine at two teams. With a number of quality free agents (including former Penske driver Ryan Newman) available of late, the answer about a third team was always the same; no thank you. Knowing that a third team will likely be needed in the near future, the Captain seems gun-shy about building the infrastructure until it's absolutely necessary.
Meanwhile, Hornish's is caught between the immediate and the future. He might be able to catch on with a lesser Nationwide operation for next season but the inevitable drop in equipment would also make wins and top fives harder to come by. Critics would point to his performance and say that Hornish's 2012-13 run was a product of superior equipment not driving skill. He'd be even further away from a Sprint Cup return, his ultimate goal. And at 34 years of age, the window of opportunity is rapidly slamming shut for a driver without a dedicated sponsor or prior Sprint Cup success.
Another possibility that's received little attention may well be a return to IndyCar. It's a transition that fellow driver Juan Pablo Montoya will be making next year as he leave's Chip Ganassi's Cup car to drive a Penske IndyCar. His open wheel career was arguably better than Montoya's and Juan's open-wheel negotiations showed that there are a number of teams open to bringing in a NASCAR star with an IndyCar pedigree. Michael Andretti in particular appears ready to embrace the concept, having put Kurt Busch behind the wheel for test sessions in addition to his discussions with Montoya.
So Hornish needs to move up or he needs to move out. There's nowhere on the Nationwide level he can go that will advance his NASCAR career. And there are any number of lower-tier Cup teams that would benefit from having a driver of his caliber in the shop and behind the wheel. A team like Front Row or BK Racing needs not only skill behind the wheel but someone who's seen first-hand what it takes to be a championship team. And like Busch before him, getting the most out of equipment that's less than elite will show other teams that Hornish is Dances With Walls no more. He's not an open wheel racer masquerading as a stock car driver. Despite a rough beginning, he's a NASCAR driver who may well be a champion by the time 2014 begins. Doesn't someone have room for a guy like that?
Time will tell.