NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2011 NASCAR Driver Review: Ron Hornaday Jr.

Ron Hornaday

2011 Ride: No. 33 Kevin Harvick Inc. Chevrolet
2011 Primary Sponsors: Steak-Umm, Kroger, Utz Snacks, Tide, OneMain Financial, Bad Boy Buggies
2011 Owner: Kevin Harvick
2011 Crew Chiefs: Jeff Hensley (February – September), Bruce Cook (four races), Chris Carrier, Rick Carelli, Eddie Ortiz (one race each)
2011 Truck Series Stats: 25 starts, 4 wins, 13 top fives, 17 top 10s, one pole, two DNFs, fourth in points

High Point: Hands down, the Kentucky 225 stands out as the big moment for Hornaday this season. In his 295th series start, the 53-year-old taught the youngsters in the field a thing or two when he scored his 50th career victory even with eventual champion Austin Dillon closing in. In that race, Hornaday had been moved over to the No. 2 Chevrolet to help Kevin Harvick Inc. hold onto the owner points lead, and that’s exactly what he did, leading four times for a race-high 42 laps.

Then, two weeks later, he won his third event of the season (also behind the wheel of the No. 2) putting him in place to challenge for a championship that was so far out of his reach earlier in the season until…

Low Point: Kyle Busch ended all hopes for Hornaday to score a championship with KHI in the last year of the team’s existence early at Texas Motor Speedway in November. Just 13 laps in, when the pair found themselves three-wide with the lapped truck of Johnny Chapman, Hornaday’s No. 33 got loose and he and Busch slid up the track, brushing the outside wall. The caution flew for the incident, both drivers inflicted with minor damage.

But Busch took it upon himself to ensure Hornaday wouldn’t win the race. In a heartbeat, he turned the No. 33 into the outside wall at full speed, a move that left Busch sitting on the sidelines for the remainder of the race as well as the weekend. Coming into Texas, Hornaday had been just 15 points out of the championship lead, but the DNF left him 48 markers back with no chance to take home the big trophy.

Summary: Despite some instability atop the pit box and the knowledge that his tenure with KHI would end when the checkered flag flew over Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hornaday and the No. 33 team put up an impressive season. After starting off the year with seven top-10 finishes – one of them a win – in the first nine races, the 53-year-old ran into some tough luck and finished 27th, 19th and 17th in consecutive races that dropped him to ninth in points and well out of the championship battle.

And though he scored six top 10s in the next seven races, it wasn’t until KHI moved him over to the No. 2 that Hornaday made a really serious run on the championship. There’s no telling what may have happened in the battle for the big trophy if Busch hadn’t taken him out of the running at Texas, but one thing is for sure – the veteran can still race, even with more promising youngsters moving into the series.

Team Ranking: First of three. Hornaday’s only team competition this season came in the form of Nelson Piquet Jr., the rookie who, while impressive, only scored 10 top-10 finishes while racking up five DNFs. The No. 2 Chevrolet was competitive, winning the owners’ title but a number of drivers shared the ride, which made each of them virtually ineligible to compete with the full-time Hornaday.

2012 Outlook: Even with the closure of KHI, the outlook isn’t all that grim for the four-time champion. Hornaday will pilot the No. 9 truck for Joe Denette Motorsports next season while serving as a veteran teammate for Rookie of the Year contender Max Gresham. In a joint announcement with team owner Joe Denette, who founded the team after winning $75.6 million in the Mega Millons lottery game in 2009, Hornaday expressed excitement for what’s to come. The team will be leasing the shop that previously housed KHI and will also keep some of the fabricators that have worked with him for so many years.

And to top of it all off, Jeff Hensley is set to come back as crew chief, a partnership that will benefit from their familiarity with each other. Jason White, who piloted the No. 23 for JDM in 2011 has been given the option to stay, but as of press time, a decision had not been made.

2011 Frontstretch Grade: A-

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