By CHUCK MARTINEZ-BRANDON
While 2013 ended on a sour note for northwest Ohio native and professional stockcar driver Sam Hornish Jr., 2014 is looking to be a happy new year.
After a decade of driving for legend Roger Penske, Hornish and the Penske Racing organization went their separate ways in November. But on Monday, Hornish inked a deal with another motorsports legend.
Joe Gibbs Racing officially announced this week that it has signed Hornish for a one-year deal to help drive the No. 54 Monster Energy Drink machine in the NASCAR Nationwide Series.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Hornish said via phone interview from his home in North Carolina Monday afternoon. “It’s a great team to be with. After being at a place like Penske Racing, and then to have the opportunity to make a move to Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) is a great opportunity, because you couldn’t ask for a better place to be.
“Joe Gibbs is a very classy guy, a great businessman and a man of faith,” added Hornish. “You look at what they’ve done since around 2008 and the success that they’ve had with owners’ and driver’s championships and the effort they put forth and how could you help but not be excited.”
According to team president J.D. Gibbs, the feeling is mutual.
“We’re excited to have someone of Sam’s caliber joining Kyle behind the wheel of the Monster Energy Camry this year,” said Gibbs in a team press release. “We think we have a great team there with Monster Energy and Sam will be an outstanding addition. We lost out on the owner’s championship by just one point last year so our focus will be on trying to get that title back in 2014.”
The deal, which was put into motion after the year-end banquet in November, puts Hornish in the seat of the No. 54 Toyota when Kyle Busch is unable to drive due to Sprint Cup obligations. Currently that will be seven races toward the middle of the season, including stops at Talladega (May 3), two Iowa races (May 18 and Aug. 2), Kentucky (Sept. 20), Road America (June 21), Mid-Ohio (Aug. 16) and Chicago (July 19). And although it’s not a full schedule, Hornish is ready to take advantage of the opportunity.
“We’re still at the first date stage,” joked Hornish. “We’re at the infancy stage of our relationship and we really haven’t discussed more than those races. We haven’t even run one test or one race together yet. But it’s a good group of races and ones that I really enjoy running, if you’d throw Indianapolis in there I’d really be all set.”
Hornish added that he’s going to try and make the most of those seven races, hold up his end of his deal with JGR and see what door opens next.
“We’ll see how it all plays out,” said Hornish. “I plan on living up to my part of the bargain and if I can do that I don’t know why we wouldn’t plan on doing more together.”
When Hornish joins the No. 54 team, he’ll be joining a team that has had plenty of success over the past several seasons.
The team just missed claiming the owners’ championship a year ago when Busch claimed victory in 12 races. In all, Busch and the No. 54 crew have 42 wins from 2009-13 and Hornish is ready to add his own skills to the mix.
“This will really allow me to learn more about myself as a driver,” explained Hornish, who had two victories in his five seasons in the seat of a Penske Nationwide car. “I’ve learned that just because cars come out of the same shop, it doesn’t mean they’re the same car. And I’ve never really shared a ride and this will allow me to re-evaluate myself as a driver. With this team and (crew chief) Adam Stevens, they put forth a tremendous effort. They win races and are successful and because they are, I’ll be able to learn more about myself as a driver and learn what I need to do to win and continue to make myself better.
“It’s going to be great to have Kyle as a counterpart,” added Hornish. “I feel if I can hold up my end there’s no reason why we can’t have a great opportunity to win an owner’s championship.”
Bush is also excited for the partnership.
“This year will be fun with Sam and me behind the wheel of our Monster Energy Camry,” said Busch. “Last year we lost the chance for another owner’s championship by a slim margin and I think you can expect a close battle again this season. Having an experienced guy in there to fill the role on a regular basis when I’m not there, gives Adam (Stevens) the opportunity for real consistency. Sam was a strong competitor last year and I look forward to having him on our side this season.”
The Nationwide Series kicks off its season on Feb. 20 with the Budweiser Duels at Daytona International Speedway.