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Hornish backs up reputation of No. 54 car

Making only 7 starts this season, 34 year-old making most of time in the car

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NEWTON — Entering 2014, Sam Hornish Jr. knew he had to make the most of the precious few NASCAR Nationwide Series starts he’d make.

He had hit the reset button — again — on the stock car portion of his career, and if he’s going to get another full-time shot, his starts in the No. 54 car for Joe Gibbs Racing needed to make a splash. He predicted strong runs and wins, but said only time would tell if he could back that up.

The 34 year-old did just that on Sunday at Iowa Speedway, dominating en route to victory in the Get to Know Newton 250.

“To be able to back it up, what my feeling was, is I’ve grown in confidence over the past couple years, and I always say my 2011 campaign when I only got to run 11 races; that made me a lot better,” Hornish said. “It made me pull my head up out of the water and see what was out there, to learn how to be a better driver and a better communicator because that’s so much of what this is.

“This is another step in trying to better myself in the longer run.”

The win was Hornish’s third career Nationwide win and first since Las Vegas in March 2013. But it feels like longer due to losing his ride with Penske Racing and not making a Nationwide start until two weeks ago at Talladega.

In today’s NASCAR, out of sight is out of mind. And when you’re in the car that’s the one to beat every other week with its regular driver, a poor run will put you on the minds of the NASCAR faithful for the wrong reasons.

Hornish hasn’t had that problem, though. He won the pole and finished fifth at Talladega, and led 167 of the 250 laps. He quipped after the race he’s just fine with his situation in retrospect, adding “I’d rather be part-time in this car than full time in a lot of others.”

“You look at this organization and what this organization has done over the past two years — you’re looking at 2012 and 2013 — with the number of race wins they have … there’s a lot of winning that goes on,” Hornish said. “So you have to feel good about it. And to have any confidence as a driver, I have to say, ‘Well, if I come here with an opportunity in the 54 car, I ought to be able to run up front. And if I play my cards right, and do the right things, I might be able to win.’”

When he was in Grimes earlier this spring at the Iowa Speedway sponsor summit, Hornish said every start he would make for Joe Gibbs Racing was an audition for something possibly full-time.

And while he believes he has the talent to be in a full-time ride, he can see the bigger picture. What’s there is a blessing in disguise, and helped put things in better perspective.

“I feel like I should have (a full-time ride), but at the end of the day it’s not always about what I want,” Hornish said. “It’s not particularly about what teams want. Everything happens for a reason and timing is a big thing.

“Selfishly, I want to be a racecar driver and be out there every week and doing all the things. But as far as my obligations as a husband and a father, this year has allowed me opportunities to do things I hadn’t had over the past couple years and to help my wife out and make things a little bit easier.”

As long as Hornish runs up front, the questions about a full-time ride will only intensify.

With the caliber of equipment he’s in, only racing luck seems capable of slowing them down. What comes next might have been the plan all along, or it might be something that crops up out of nowhere. Regardless, it will mean the move made sense as he and Joe Gibbs Racing hoped it would.

“Sometimes, as Sam said, as much as you orchestrate the plan, things don’t work out and then when you look back and see how things changed, how doors open, you go, ‘We could’ve never planned that,’” said Vice President of Nationwide Series Operations for Joe Gibbs Racing Steve deSousa. “Whoever comes through our organization, we want to make better when they leave than when they came. So our job for Sam is to help him win races, and if those opportunities present themselves for him to go full-time, then great, we’ve accomplished that. Even better if we can put him in something we have, that would be our dream.”

The Nationwide Series is next in action on Saturday at Charlotte for the History 300.

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