By Matt Weaver — Sam Hornish Jr. is hoping that his team’s late season test at Homestead Miami Speedway will make the difference in erasing his eight point Nationwide Series championship gap to Austin Dillon entering the final weekend of the season.
Hornish was initially hesitant to “place all of his eggs in one basket,” testing at a track that doesn’t really compare to any other stop on the schedule. He would have preferred to test at Chicagoland. But now that Hornish has made it to the final race with a fair shot at the championship, he believes he has at least one advantage over Dillon.
He’s going to need that advantage too because Dillon is competing in the Truck Series race on Friday night and will get the extra seat time and experience on the Goodyear tire.
“I think it’s going to be a big thing because this is a little bit different tire,” Hornish said during the Championship Media Day on Thursday. “Obviously, the track configuration is different than a lot of the ones we run at.
“So for what this track does to tires and how quickly it wears them, and knowing the line, I think Austin is right — having the opportunity to get out there and to run the Trucks race and have a good feeling about how fast the tires are falling off, how quickly you need to move up and how much you need to save them to be good on the end of a long run are all important things.”
Win or lose the Nationwide Championship on Saturday, Hornish believes he’s earned a second shot at going Sprint Cup racing. In 2007, Hornish was plucked from the IndyCar ranks by team owner Roger Penske and immediately placed in the Sprint Cup Series.
Hornish struggled for the better part of three seasons in Sprint Cup but eventually found a home in the Nationwide Series. Over the past three seasons, he’s picked up two victories, is contending for the championship and shined when he filled in for the No. 22 Sprint Cup team last season, following AJ Allmendinger’s substance abuse suspension.
“I definitely feel like I belong in the Cup Series and I feel like even taking the step back was to prove what I’ve known for a long time, that given the right equipment and the right people around me, this is what I would be capable of,” Hornish said. “But each one of those experiences was a learning experience.”
Hornish cited his team’s accomplishments last weekend at Phoenix, turning a ill-handling car and frustrating afternoon into a top-5 finish as a sign that he does belongs in the Cup Series. The result was a confirmation that he now knows how to better manage a frustrating situation — and in the case of Phoenix, it may win him the championship.
“I think that even a couple of years ago I would have taken what we had last weekend and probably would have ended up either 15th or wrecked,” Hornish said. “But by the things that I’ve learned — and forced myself to do — and by saying that I can’t pick it up and carry (everything on my back), I can try to get the best finish out of it.”
That’s exactly what Hornish hopes to do on Saturday in erasing the gap to Dillon and winning his first NASCAR championship.