By Kelly Crandall – For 12 long laps Sam Hornish Jr. was left powerless.
Idly running his No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford around Homestead-Miami Speedway under caution, laps clicking away, he was left to listen to his team rail about wasting laps. Questioning NASCAR. Calling for a red flag. Expressing the unacceptable nature of the situation.
Yet Hornish just listened. Perhaps thoughts to himself about how the 2013 Nationwide Series championship was slipping from his fingers. At one point calmly and almost quietly telling the team everything was fine.
But the Ford Ecoboost 300’s final caution was anything but fine for those watching. Up until that point Hornish had been in control of his championship destiny, outrunning rival and point leader Austin Dillon. But a hard crash off turn four on lap 184 of 200 changed everything.
And not just in a lyrical sense, it did change everything. As some of the leaders headed down pit road for tires, Dillon moved up in the running order. Swinging the championship back in his favor. Then NASCAR ran 12 laps under caution instead of displaying a red flag before restarting with five laps to go.
Dillon finished 12th and was crown the 2013 NNS champion. Hornish finished third and lost the championship by three points.
“Everybody on the radio was getting all flustered that there wasn’t a red flag and that there were so many laps of yellow. It just seems like most of the time we would have stopped, but we weren’t good enough tonight to go out there and to win the race even though we felt like we were a top-four car, which we probably were,” Hornish said afterwards.
“That last restart the inside row didn’t get going very good and we got gobbled up because we had two cautions there right in a row where it allowed the guys that took tires to be able to get up to the back of us and we just couldn’t hold on.”
The Penske team was left in disbelief as to why NASCAR did not red flag the race. Instead choosing to waste laps under caution and not ensuring a battle to the end. Which had been playing out all night long with Dillon having to fight from behind because of an ill handling car.
Hornish meanwhile, put up a valiant fight in the last race, his last chance to take the title. He won the pole and led 37 laps, running in the top five the entire event. It was more a resemblance of the Hornish that started the season, who led the point standings for a total of 15 weeks.
His lone win in Las Vegas propelled him towards the title fight. His early consistency made him a serious contender for it. But mistakes and bad breaks took it from him, even as he dug hard on Saturday night. Inside, outside and up in the wall, Hornish stuck his 12 car wherever it would go and let the cards fall where they may.
“Then I looked in my mirror and I saw the 3 and the 33 (Ty Dillon) running side-by-side there and I was like, ‘Well, that’s gonna make it pretty hard for anybody to pass Austin (laughing),’ so that’s the name of the game and hat’s off to everybody over at Richard Childress Racing,” Hornish said.
“All of these guys that work at Team Penske did a great job for me. I wish that we would have been able to bring it home, but to have the opportunity with about where we were at the halfway point of the last race out in Phoenix, this was a great opportunity. I wish we could have done more for everybody at Alliance Truck Parts and the Wurth Group and Penske Racing for helping us out so much.”
The future of Hornish is unknown. But in 2014 he won’t be back with Penske as funding takes him out of his No. 12. He won a career two races with the company, whom he became successful with during his tenure in the IndyCar Series.
On Saturday, Penske said that Hornish does have options going forward. And Hornish acknowledged in the past weeks that he wants to stay in NASCAR, he does not have the desire to head back to IndyCar.
So as he gracefully climbed from his machine and held his head high, it was with the confidence that he’d done all he could do. A NASCAR championship, this year, wasn’t in the cards.
Making those 12 long laps even more gut-wrenching.
“You can’t give away points throughout the year like we did at times – some was the driver’s fault and some was the team’s fault and some was out of our control. We had it for most of the night and I knew that Austin was obviously trying to take care of everything and make sure that he made it to the end, and then you had that late caution and a lot of guys had tires and came,” Hornish lamented.
“The 54 didn’t get a very good restart and we were a sitting duck on the bottom and couldn’t get far enough out away from anybody to make anything happen.”
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