TALLADEGA, Ala. (AP) — Finally, after spending the first three months of the season on the sidelines, Sam Hornish Jr. is getting back in a car.
His seven-race Nationwide Series deal with Joe Gibbs Racing starts Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway, where Hornish will drive the No. 54 Toyota typically piloted by Kyle Busch.
That's right: After falling just three points short of winning last year's Nationwide championship, Hornish was rewarded with a seven-race deal. But Hornish isn't complaining. He insisted the JGR offer was the best one for him, and the only one that gave him both a chance to win races and potentially expand his role.
It already has in some respects — Hornish was the emergency replacement driver for Denny Hamlin at California in March when Hamlin was not medically cleared to race. More important to Hornish was the lure of working for Joe Gibbs after 10 years with Roger Penske.
He was sold on the limited schedule after speaking to Gibbs and team President J.D. Gibbs.
"When you talk about Joe Gibbs Racing after being at Penske for so long, Coach is exactly the kind of person you want to align yourself with when you are used to having those kind of expectations of people that you are around," Hornish said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"I had some other offers, not to say they wouldn't be good or they weren't impressive, there were some really good people I talked to," he said. "But when I sat down with Mr. Gibbs and J.D., it was like, I don't know if they could read my mind and told me everything I wanted to hear, but they said everything I wanted them to say to me. I knew in my heart I wanted to do it."
Hornish will start on the pole Saturday after leading a JGR sweep in qualifying. NASCAR used its knockout format at a restrictor-plate track for the first time this season — the session was rained out at Daytona in February — and all 12 cars in the final round waited until just about 3 minutes remained to head out onto the track.
Hornish used a fast lap to best Elliott Sadler and Darrell Wallace Jr. in the JGR sweep.
The way Hornish sees it, he did a limited Nationwide schedule for Penske in 2011, when he had 13 starts and scored his first series victory. He turned that season into another full-time ride with Team Penske.
Now, he hopes another door could open the same way it did at Penske.
"Seven races may not be where I want to be at, but I was in the same kind of situation a couple of years ago and I parlayed that into almost winning the championship," Hornish said.
Hornish battled Austin Dillon all last season and the Nationwide title was up for grabs headed into the November finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But a lengthy late caution hampered Hornish's shot and he couldn't overcome his points deficit.
He wound up losing the title by just three points in what he knew was his final race for Penske. The team owner had decided not to re-sign Hornish, partly because of a lack of sponsorship and partly because the organization felt it was time for Hornish to return to the Sprint Cup Series.
Losing the championship has stuck with Hornish.
"A lot of people ask me how long does it take to get over that. As a race car driver, you never get over it because whether you never win one or you win three, well, you could have won four," he said. "You are kind of greedy by nature, you always want a little more. If we were to have went out as champions, it would have probably been a little bit easier to deal with.
"But I feel like a lot of that's in the past, and I remember all the things that Roger did for me and I remember doing my best to live up to the things he expected for me. We both could have done things better along the way, but we both did some pretty good things as a group together."