CONCORD, N.C. -- At one time, Sam Hornish Jr. was following in the footsteps of legends. He was America's next IndyCar star, continuing a legacy started by drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears. An IndyCar champion when he was just 21 years old, Hornish would go on to win three championships and the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
But Hornish wasn't satisfied resting on his laurels and in 2008 made the move to NASCAR as a Sprint Cup rookie. He knew the transition would be difficult but didn't expect it to be such a struggle. In three years with Penske Racing he tallied only two top-fives and eight top-10s. Unable to translate his IndyCar success to NASCAR, Hornish moved down to the Nationwide Series on a part-time deal in 2011 and a full-time deal in 2012.
Hornish has always been humble, so the step down to the Nationwide Series wasn't much of a blow to his ego. In fact, Hornish views it as a chance to start over, a chance to do what he should have done in 2008 before jumping straight to the Cup Series.
"I saw the value of running the full season [in Nationwide] all along but we didn't really have that option," Hornish said. "In 2008 I wish I had the opportunity to run the full season in Nationwide to give us the opportunity to learn and not have to compete against the 42 best drivers every weekend in Cup."
Hornish had promise in 2008 and midway through that season was competitive with his then Penske Cup teammates, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman. But over the course of a full season the drastic difference between a sleek high-speed IndyCar and the bigger, bulkier stock car became evident. It was a difference that Hornish was frankly not prepared for.
"They are totally different," Hornish admitted. "It is almost harder than starting your career over because you have all these memories of success. I put pressure on myself that I needed to go out there and win early and be a top-five driver. I pushed myself harder than I should have at that point in time. ... [I]t's different and it's been a challenge but a challenge is what I wanted when I came over here."
As an IndyCar driver he started 116 races and won 19. He also had 47 finishes on the podium (third or higher) along with 10 poles. Hornish had the look of the next four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 and many insiders thought he might even have a chance to be the first five-time winner of the world's most famous race. Success was his constant companion in IndyCar, which made his NASCAR struggles so hard to accept.
"After winning championships in 2001 and 2002 that pressure was always going to be there for myself," said Hornish, who won his third IndyCar title in 2006 along with his only win in the Indy 500. "That was a lot to happen really quickly. If I were to stay in IndyCars, I probably would have had a lot more really good days. But running in the IROC [International Race of Champions] races and the Nationwide races I always knew there was something else out there for me. I knew no matter how many more races I won in IndyCar I would always wonder what else was out there for me."
The part-time ride in 2011 had its benefits. Hornish was able to get away from racing on a weekly basis and on the track he hit Victory Lane for the first time at Phoenix in November. It also allowed him to spend more time with his wife, Crystal, and his two young daughters, Addison and Liza.
"I was able to see there were other things out there other than racing," Hornish said. "If it had happened eight years earlier, I may not have been able to handle it as well as I did. Winning Indy was the ultimate accomplishment for me so everything after that was icing on the cake. So when I won at Phoenix last November I was able to justify to myself why we do this."
His Phoenix win came just one month after his friend and fellow IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed in the massive crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"To think about that and the fact we had similar career paths and did a lot of the same things -- he was one of the toughest guys I ever raced against," Hornish said. "I was able to take those memories into Victory Lane with me."
Hornish was building a tree house for his girls at his Mooresville, N.C. home when Wheldon was killed. Once he saw the crash he knew it wasn't good. His wife told him it was Wheldon. He sat for 15-20 minutes and tried to collect his thoughts. He broke down during the five-lap tribute given to Wheldon.
"I still continue to think about that," Hornish admitted. "This is selfish that I'm still racing because it's what I want to do. Do I need to go out and do it? No, but I want to."
Hornish has never been considered overly emotional. In fact, his quiet demeanor leads many to consider him aloof. But Hornish always displayed an inner confidence that helped him develop into an outstanding race driver. When he got a chance to drive Brad Keselowski's Nationwide Series car at Iowa Speedway last year he discovered what it took to drive a competitive car. He was able to take that knowledge into other races in 2011 and credits that day at Iowa in helping prepare him for victory at Phoenix.
He studied how Keselowski and Kurt Busch drove their races in the Cup Series and discovered ways that he could make himself better on the racetrack. It goes to show that even a three-time series champion and Indianapolis 500 winner can learn from other drivers.
"In any sport you have to let your ego go to the wayside," Hornish said. "If you are a rookie or a 30-year veteran you have to learn from the people around you. Your teammates are the ones [who are] going to help you. I think it would be stupid to let my ego get ahold of me and think I can't learn from people like Brad Keselowski, who was in his second full season in Cup."
Buoyed with renewed confidence, Hornish enters the season certain he can be successful in a stock car.
"I feel like if we finish any worse than third in the standings, I'll be disappointed with that," Hornish said.
Even if he doesn't achieve the same level of success in NASCAR that he enjoyed in IndyCar, Hornish believes his earlier accomplishments rank him among auto racing's best drivers since 2000.
"When I left IndyCar it was the right time for me to go," he said. "I'm 99.9 percent sure I'll never run IndyCar again. There is always that .1 percent. I feel that a lot of good things have happened to me in the IndyCar Series and it was time for me to try something new. I wanted to try something different.
"I have all the right opportunities to keep the program moving forward," Hornish continued. "I finally have this opportunity to beat drivers like Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series. When they came down to Victory Lane and congratulated me that meant as much to me as winning the race. Both of them have been pretty good to me."
Hornish's days of glory in IndyCar have been replaced with a tremendous challenge in NASCAR. His path has been circuitous and while many thought he took a wrong turn, Hornish is confident one day it will be the road best traveled.