Trivia time: who won the ninth XFINITY race for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2016?
How about the one-off, hasn’t-raced-since-November Sam Hornish Jr.?
That’s the one. Hornish went out and dominated the field in Iowa last Sunday, leading 183 of 250 laps and taking home his fourth career victory, his second at the track and under the JGR banner. For Hornish, it was a perfect homecoming to NASCAR, winning on Father’s Day in his first NASCAR race in over seven months.
Hornish, who raced full-time in the Sprint Cup Series last year for Richard Petty Motorsports, lost his ride following the season and didn’t have anything solid lined up until two weeks ago when he announced a two-race deal to run Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 car in the NXS at the second Iowa race as well as the September Kentucky race.
Then last week, JGR announced Hornish would be filling in for Matt Tifft, scheduled to race at Iowa but sidelined by an injury.
He certainly made the most of his opportunity.
But in today’s NXS garage, it seems that anybody in a JGR has a legitimate shot to win. Over the years, drivers like Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Tony Stewart have also won races for JGR. Considering Hornish hadn’t seen track time since Nov. 2015, it makes one wonder whether it was the driver or the car that led to victory.
CAR > DRIVER
No disrespect to Sam Hornish, Jr. He’s a nice guy, but his long and bumpy road in NASCAR is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to saying that it was the Toyota Camry that JGR prepared that took him to victory. His open-wheel background certainly didn’t help things much in his transition to stock cars.
Open-wheel stars have largely lacked success in today’s NASCAR. The list of drivers who tried the sport only to leave is large and really, a who’s who of open-wheel racing. Dario Franchitti, Patrick Carpentier, Juan Pablo Montoya, Kimi Raikkonen. Only one lasted more than one season – Montoya – and while he did earn two road course wins he was rarely a factor on the ovals.
Hornish’s three stints in Cup were lackluster: two top 5s and eight top 10s from 2008-2010, one top 5 in 2012 and three top 10s in 2015.
On the NXS side, Hornish performed better, using a late-season victory in a part-time Team Penske ride at Phoenix in 2011 to turn the partnership into a full campaign in 2012. He finished fourth in the points that season and picked up a second win in 2013, finishing second in the title hunt to Austin Dillon.
He did all of that in Penske equipment, at the time the crème-de-la-crème of the series – Penske drivers won 14 races in 2013. But while teammates Brad Keselowski and Logano each won multiple times – even AJ Allmendinger picked up two victories – all Hornish could muster was a single victory.
Which makes his Iowa victory last weekend seem like it was thanks in large part to the car. Hornish plugged into the best car in the series – it had won five times prior to his checkered flag – and now has 61 wins since 2010. Winning should have come as no surprise. It’s expected by JGR in the XFINITY Series.
Of course, he still had to drive the car. I’m not saying he has no talent – IndyCar championships and XFINITY wins do take skill – but to take as long a break as he did and then go win can only be done by drivers in the best cars. Remember, a driver can only take an ill-prepared so far. Kurt Busch drove a heavily-underfunded Phoenix Racing Chevrolet to a third-place finish at Sonoma four years ago, and the last time a lower-level team won in Cup was when David Ragan took a Talladega victory for Front Row Motorsports in 2013.
And drivers who sit out long periods of time before returning tend to do poorly; things change so much that if you’re not at the track week in and week out you’re at a serious disadvantage.
Hornish had a huge advantage, though, on Sunday: a JGR car. He turned it into a win, and it doesn’t matter one percent whether the victory came because of rain or a great car or a huge wreck that took out all the competition. History books don’t remember that kind of stuff. Just that the No. 18 was in Victory Lane again, and Hornish was the one turning the wheel.
IT WAS THE DRIVER, NOT THE CAR
There is absolutely no doubt that Sam Hornish, Jr. is a talented racecar driver. The man has three IndyCar Series titles and is an Indianapolis 500 champion. Not many people can accomplish both.
The move to stock car racing was one Hornish felt was necessary, given the new challenge and opportunity to continue racing for legendary team owner Roger Penske. However, after years of mediocre success in the Cup Series, he lost his Cup ride.
It wasn’t surprising to see Hornish succeed in the XFINITY Series, but it was shocking to see him have sponsorship woes. In 2011, the man could find funding for a mere 13 races before going full-time with Team Penske in 2012 and 2013.
Though Hornish won only one race in his two full XFINITY Series seasons, he was a title contender both years. He ended up unemployed, though, after a runner-up finish in the standings in 2013. Evidently, Joe Gibbs Racing picked him up for eight events in 2014, elevating him to a Sprint Cup ride — a second chance — with Richard Petty Motorsports.
In mediocre equipment, Hornish earned three top 10s and a career-best finish of 26th in the Sprint Cup standings last year. While it might not seem like a lot, he proved to be a competitor for top 20s on a bi-weekly basis. It was his first time in Sprint Cup competition week-in and week-out since he filled in for a suspended AJ Allmendinger in 2012.
While unemployed for the majority of 2015, Hornish already showcased his potential once again.
Dominating at Iowa, Hornish drove the No. 18 car to Victory Lane, one that comes as a surprise for many given he received a call to race just days before the event. However, it shouldn’t be a surprise.
Hornish is a proven racer. In the XFINITY Series, his resume is just as impressive as anyone’s. He had three wins entering Sunday’s race, along with an average finish of 13.7, including averages under 10th in his two full-time seasons.
While Hornish might not have been a stellar Sprint Cup driver, his XFINITY Series success is one that shouldn’t be understated. He stepped in JGR equipment last year, out-performing those who were in the equipment — other than Kyle Busch himself — and he did the same on Sunday.
Rookie Matt Tifft only has two top 10s this year in the same No. 18 car. If he competed at Iowa, would he have dominated like Hornish did? No. Could he have won? Maybe. But let’s face it: At the end of the day, it was the driver who elevated the Toyota into the winner’s circle in a desperate attempt to resurface on the NASCAR scene.
If Hornish can succeed in his next chance, an event with Richard Childress Racing, he might just find himself in prime position to return to the XFINITY Series full-time once again, re-emerging as a title contender.