|Hornish on 2013: "It was tough."|
The following week, he began his search for a new job, after being informed that he would not have a spot in the driver lineup at Penske Racing in 2014.
That search came full-circle yesterday, with the announcement that Hornish will drive a limited schedule of Nationwide Series races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, sharing the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota with Kyle Busch. And while his projected seven-race schedule is less than ideal, the three-time IndyCar Series champion said he is happy with his new position, while offering a behind-the-scenes look at what led to his departure from Penske Racing.
“It was tough,” said Hornish of the uncertainty surrounding the final weeks of the 2013 season. “We ran for the championship, and the sponsors we had weren’t leaving the team, or the sport. (They were just needed elsewhere) in order to make all the other pieces of the puzzle work. When all that plays out this season, people will see how it was.
“The racing world is three years behind the rest of the world economically, because of the length of our contracts,” he said. “When things went bad in 2008, racing continued to be pretty strong. It took until 2010 or 2011 for people to see how hard we were hit. The flip side of that is that when (the economy) comes back, it takes another three years for us to benefit, because people already have contracts signed for less money. In many cases, there are sponsors who are capable of going out there and sponsoring a full-time Cup or Nationwide car, but still don’t feel good enough about how things are going economically to do it.
|JGR teammates Busch (L) and Hornish|
“I know Roger Penske didn’t do that to me intentionally,” stressed Hornish. “They were pushing hard to get all their contracts done, and this is just how it played out. Something didn’t come together, and I ended up being the odd man out. Roger had already said it was time for me to move back up to Sprint Cup, but the opportunity just wasn’t there.”
With his association with Penske coming to an end, Hornish said he was not interested in simply “making laps” in 2014, in cars incapable of winning. “I didn’t pursue deals of that caliber,” he revealed. “There was a very specific group of people I was interested in talking to. I had other teams that showed interest, (and) I probably could have had more races (with another team). But I wouldn’t have had more opportunity to win.
“I kept after JD Gibbs pretty hard about getting together,” he said. “We had lunch together late in the season, and kind of left it at that for a month and a half. They let me focus on what was important (at the end of the 2013 campaign), but the day after the banquet, I got a call asking if I was still interested in talking with them.
“I said, `I sure am…’ and this is what came out of it. When I sat down and thought about it, my brain and my heart told me the right thing to do. It kept coming back to Joe Gibbs Racing, and after I had my first meeting with Steve DeSouza, J.D. and Joe Gibbs, I knew this was what I had to do.
“I could have tried to make another deal work, but this is where I wanted to be.”
|Hornish's new part-time ride|
“We ran with Kyle in a lot of races last season,” he said, “and we finished second to him quite a few times. At the fall Charlotte race, we ran him down and passed him with 20 laps to go, then lost the handle with 10 laps left and watched him drive back by me. It’s going to be neat to see what the differences are (between teams).”
Hornish said he feels fortunate to transition from one legendary program to another.
“I thank everybody at Penske Racing,” he said. “They’ve supported me for the past 10 years; from Indy Cars to Cup to Nationwide, and gave me a lot of great opportunities. Roger has done a lot for me, and I am happy to be able to move on and work with the same caliber of people (at JGR). You can’t ask for a better caliber of people. I can’t ask for anything better than to work for a man like Joe Gibbs. Not a lot of people can say they’ve worked for both Roger Penske and Joe Gibbs in their lifetime.”
Despite a limited, seven-race schedule, Hornish said he hopes his new position with JGR will lead to better things in 2015 and beyond.
“This is the way for me to move forward,” he said. “Maybe not in 2014, but beyond that. I’ve been in this situation before. In 2011, I had seven or eight races scheduled (with Penske Racing) that eventually turned into 14. (Those seven races) led to two fulltime seasons with Penske, narrowly missing out on the Nationwide championship last year.
“I understand the importance of sitting back, being smart and waiting,” he said. “In 2011, I was with a great owner who was going to take to try and develop sponsors and let them get involved. Those sponsors are still with the organization today, and now, I have an opportunity to get involved with another great owner.
“Between us, we missed out on the owner’s and driver’s championships by a total of four points last season,” he laughed. “Maybe this year, we can get it done together.”
“Adam Stevens has showed over the last two years that he is more than a capable crew chief. He’s excellent, and to get an opportunity to work with him is just awesome. I sat down right after Thanksgiving and had a chance to talk to Joe, and afterward, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. They said all the right things, and backed it up by getting me the (contractual) paperwork right away.
“At the end of the day, I couldn’t deny it. This is something that I want to do, and I need to do.”