Sam Hornish Jr.'s return is NASCAR's feel good story
The original plan for Father’s Day weekend was to drop in on the ’rents at their northeast Indiana lake house, with his wife and three young’uns in tow. And then last Monday, some four days before setting off, Sam Hornish Jr. received a text from his manager about a job.
Until classes let out a few weeks ago, Hornish had been working as a substitute teacher at his daughters’ school in the Mooresville, N.C., area, dipping into grades K through 12 and dabbling in everything from gym to pre-calculus. This latest temp gig his manager had to offer wasn’t from a parent looking for a tutor or a principal in need of summer semester help. No, it was from Joe Gibbs Racing, NASCAR’s hottest franchise at the moment. There was an Xfinity race on Sunday, on a .89-mile oval just outside of Des Moines, Iowa. Short a driver, they wondered if Hornish would be interested in taking his seat. Upon briefest consideration, he recalls, laughing, “I just said, Yeah!”
When Hornish last appeared in this space—barely a month ago, in fact—he seemed for all the world like a man who was far more content to be watching races at home than running in them for big money. This, despite a spectacular 15-year run that saw the 36-year-old win three IndyCar series crowns, swipe the checkers in the 2006 Indianapolis 500, and just miss out on the 2013 Xfinity series championship. (Alas, to his kids, all of whom were too young to see any of this in person, it was almost like it never happened.)
What Hornish left unsaid at the time was that he’d been pining to get back behind the wheel since turning his last laps in the 2015 Cup series finale in Homestead, Fla. The only thing stopping him was his young family and the profound sense of duty he feels to be a constant presence in their lives—something that a racing career, with its endless travel and engrossing work, doesn’t really leave much room for.
A one-off deal driving for Gibbs, though? That would work. His wife, Crystal, told him as much when he broke the news to her, by way of an apology for not consulting with her before hastily accepting the assignment. “She was more excited about it than I was,” Hornish says. “And then when I found out that the car I’d be driving was the No. 18, I got this big pit in my stomach and got nervous—like man, that car is so good. If I don’t run well that’s gonna be … well, I won’t have any excuses.”
Hornish may be blessed with otherworldly racing talent. But it comes with a degree of stage fright that any white-collar worker who makes the odd PowerPoint presentation to a conference room full of people can relate to. It’s of a piece with a Midwestern charm, made in Defiance, Ohio, that makes this motorsports marvel so gosh darned likable.
And yet if any party had a right to feel tense going into this setup, it was the folks at Gibbs. All season, the franchise has been riding an epic roll—one that kicked off when Denny Hamlin won this year’s Daytona 500 by a nose.
Oh, and Gibbs isn’t just crushing it at the Sprint Cup level, where their four pilots have accounted for seven victories in 15 starts heading into this Sunday’s race at Sonoma. (Incidentally, the defending winner, Kyle Busch, is another one of their people.) No, they’re also crushing in the Xfinity series, where they were riding an 8-for-13 tear heading into last Sunday’s race in Iowa.
Five of those victories were delivered via their No. 18 Toyota machine. Three Gibbs drivers share that ride: Hamlin, Busch and a rising 19-year-old UNC Charlotte business major named Matt Tifft—who was originally slated to run at Iowa while his co-pilots indulged a rare Cup series weekend off. But then last Monday, Tifft made a surprise visit to the office of Steve deSouza, the man in charge of the Xfinity program at Gibbs. Flanked by his mother, Tifft grudgingly asked for leave time. A persistent lower back issue that often leaves him hobbling around the Gibbs shop had become unbearable to the point of requiring a cortisone shot. Barring any protracted complications, he’d be ready to go again by his next scheduled start at Daytona on July 1. But Sunday’s race at Iowa, said Tifft’s doctor, was a no-go.
From there deSouza and Chris Gayle, the crew chief for the No. 18 car, began populating a list of replacements. Their preference was to go with a driver who had worked with them in the past, given how short they were on time. (“The trucks were literally loading on Tuesday,” deSouza said.”) Most of the candidates who fit the bill were Cup guys, but recall: They were on vacation.
Among a modest roster of outlier prospects, there was Hornish, leaping off the page. He had driven a part time Xfinity schedule for Gibbs in 2014, and won at Iowa for them that year. His cockpit dimensions were already on file, obviating the need for him to come to the shop and get measured. He was the clear choice. “I think it was about 9 o’clock that night that we had this all wrapped up,” deSouza says. “We really love him over here. To have somebody with the storied history that he has, it’s great.”
They weren’t much troubled by the fact that their replacement driver hadn’t turned a hot lap in a stock car in seven months. But Hornish, naturally, was freaking out.
It wasn’t just the Iowa date that had Hornish on edge. It was the timing—on Father’s day, right after he and the girls’ had just returned from a trip to Upper Peninsula Michigan for a cousin’s wedding, just as he had relocated his family from Mooresville back to the Defiance area.
And then there was the battery of health hoops he had to jump through to prove himself track worthy again. The drug test in particular stands out. “I ended up driving an hour and half to get that done,” says Hornish, adding that he’s been false-flagged before, for something as simple as forgetting to report an over-the-counter allergy medication. “It’s like you can never just go this is for sure until that clears.” After an expedited analysis, he was pronounced good to go. And still his nerves jangled.
The Thursday before his first day back at the office was a long one. “If I got two-and-a-half hours of sleep that night,” Hornish says, “I would say that was a lot.” He was still wired when arrived on track that Friday morning, turning up in his firesuit with his helmet in hand.
His first laps in the No. 18 car felt funny. The positioning of the steering wheel was a hair or two off Hornish’s sweet spot, and the headrest of his seat limited his range of arm movement. Once he and Gayle got that sorted, Hornish zoomed to the top of the speed charts. He concluded the first practice in second position and the final practice in third, which is also where he eventually qualified.
Throughout, Gayle kept asking Hornish, “What do we need to be faster?” And each time, Hornish shrugged.
“We’re good to go,” he’d say.
“But your racing line is different than the other people’s,” Gayle would say.
“Well … we’re fast,” Hornish would say. “There’s a method to the way that I drive this track, and I feel like that’s what’s going to pay off for us in the long run.”
By this point his competitive fire was at blue flame again. The anxiety that had riddled him all week had practically melted away.
On race day Hornish drew added strength from the presence of his family: Crystal; his daughters Addison and Eliza; his son Sammy; his own parents, Big Sam and Jo Ellen—all of whom watched from a suite. When the green flag finally flew beneath an unforgiving Midwestern sun, Hornish bided his time before surging into the lead. And there he stayed there for a staggering 183 of 250 laps. “When he got pressure at the beginning of a new cycle after a yellow or a pit stop,” deSouza explains, “we could see on the lap times that he would really go hard for a few laps, get a distance, and then back off and save something in case he was really challenged. That’s the move of a veteran. Now, you don’t generally get to do this in races, but this was about as perfect a day as you could have.”
On his final lap, Hornish clocked a 1.443-second advantage over Childress Racing’s Ty Dillon, the second-largest margin of victory this season. Finishing two spots ahead of Penske’s Brad Keselowski, a former Cup champion who always seemed to get the better of Hornish on the Xfinity circuit, was the cherry on top of the Sunday. From there followed two attempts by Hornish at a celebratory burnout, both of which petered out at 180 degrees. “A lot of people have given me some crap about that,” Hornish says. “But, I’m like: a) I’m rusty; b) I’m lucky I won in the first place; c) I was thinking about the last time I won for JGR and the engine guys gave me a hard time for hurting the motor doing a burnout; and d) I was thinking about my family.”
When Hornish eased into Victory Lane and saw Crystal, Sammy and the girls standing at the entrance, he dissolved into tears. Barely a month earlier he insisted on carting his brood to Indianapolis for the 100th Indy 500 to give them a flavor of the adulation that once attended him on a weekly basis. Now, finally, here the kids were, drinking it in for themselves.
Just when Hornish’s brilliant Father’s Day afternoon, the feel-good story of the NASCAR season so far, seemed like it couldn’t get more emotional, Eliza, the 5-year-old philosopher in family, tells her old man, “Dad, I’m happy that you won, but what about all those other kids that their daddy didn’t win today?”
“I told her there can only be one winner,” he says. “And today was our day to celebrate. So we’ve just gotta enjoy this as much as we can.”
Of course, those other daddies will get their chance. Hearing Hornish talk about his, it’s easy to see where Eliza inherited her great powers of consideration. “You know, I’ve spent a lot of this year looking at my life, doing a bit of soul searching,” he says. “I’ve tried to put in a lot of work into helping other people these last couple months but I didn’t expect to be rewarded for it.
“The teacher who originally suggested I sign up to be a substitute was Addison’s second grade homeroom teacher. About a month after I started, she let everybody know she had cancer a couple years ago and that it had returned—as Stage 4 bone cancer. The majority of what I ended up doing, especially during the end of April and early May, was filling in for her. She passed about two weeks ago.
“So it was one of those things where ... I dunno. It’s super sad. But she gave me an opportunity to do something that I wouldn’t have. And to fill in for my daughter’s class as well? She’ll always remember having her dad as her teacher for a couple weeks.”
Hornish isn’t sure how much more standing he’ll be doing in front of a classroom down the road. As for substituting on the racetrack, he has a couple dates lined up with Childress Racing—at Iowa again on July 30 and at Kentucky on Sept. 24. What’s more, he’ll be at the controls of another strong car—the No. 2 Chevy machine, which Austin Dillon guided to victory at Fontana in March.
Few, if any drivers, arrive at the junction where Hornish sits now, where he can essentially tell teams I can’t justify any time away from my family for anything less than a top-five car. (The light penalty recently assessed on the Gibbs No. 18 shouldn’t detract from its might.) But who could say he hasn’t earned the right to race on his own terms? Certainly, there’s no arguing with his rather straightforward winning formula: When he keeps his family close, he races as if he has nothing to lose.
“I don’t know how it’ll all play out,” Hornish says of his career reboot. “Too much of this involves money and having the right sponsors. No matter what, last Sunday was a great bookend for me to prove to myself that even given less than a week to do it and being out in a car for the first time of the year there, I can go out and I can get the job done against some of the best guys out there. I’m happy with that being what it is, and if there’s more of an opportunity somewhere down the road that’s great.”