A Nationwide Title Could Redefine Hornish’s Future

Sam Hornish Jr.. (Getty Images)

Sam Hornish Jr.. (Getty Images)

Before Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick settle the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship, two other titles will be decided at Homestead-Miami Speedway this weekend.

One should be a slam dunk. As soon as Matt Crafton takes the green flag in Friday night’s Ford EcoBoost 200, he’ll be the new NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion.

The race in the NASCAR Nationwide Series is far less clearly defined. Austin Dillon holds an eight-point lead over Sam Hornish Jr. in what has been a hotly contested up-and-down battle all season long.

Dillon is a former truck series champion who expects to graduate to NASCAR Sprint Cup next year in a car owned by his legendary grandfather, Richard Childress.

Where Dillon’s career is following a blueprint, Hornish’s future is anything but certain. Where Dillon will race for a championship trophy in Saturday’s Ford EcoBoost 300, Hornish will race for a title and everything that comes with it including the possibility of a stock car ride for next season.

Team owner Roger Penske doesn’t have a concrete opportunity for Hornish in 2014 and has given the 34-year-old driver from Defiance, Ohio, the OK to shop around for a solid situation. Thus far, Hornish has no announced plans for next year, though the former IndyCar and Indianapolis 500 champion would prefer to remain in NASCAR.

“I’ve always been a person that never says never, but I’m pretty well focused on trying to continue to make my way and to make this work on the NASCAR side of it,” Hornish said after running fifth this past Saturday at Phoenix.

“The level of racing here, the amount of talent and the way that these races are run is extremely appealing to me, because I feel like it commands me to work harder to be a better driver and a better person. We’ll have to see how everything plays out.”

A championship certainly would help raise his visibility. And more than simply considering a title as validation of his NASCAR career, Hornish wants to seize the opportunity in front of him.

“I feel like I want to win the championship, because at this point in time, I don’t know what the opportunities for me to win another one will be,” Hornish said. “So you’ve got to go out there and work hard to try to get the best finishes and the best opportunity, but I don’t feel like it completely validates it.

“I feel like this last year has shown something that I’ve known for a while, and it’s just me being able to back it up with the results. We don’t have as many wins as we’d like to at this point (one this season, at Las Vegas), but I feel like being able to go out there and race against top level Sprint Cup guys and to race the way that we did throughout the season … I feel pretty good about that.

“So I’ve got my head held high on that one, and we’re going to continue to work hard to try to figure out how to continue to be in this sport as long as I can.”

ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTING

After finishing fifth this past Friday in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at Phoenix, Matt Crafton was relaxed and jovial.

At the dais in the media center, he joked with fellow NCWTS veteran Brendan Gaughan. The drivers laughed about possible subterfuge that would keep Crafton from starting the season finale at Homestead.

SPARTA, KY - JUNE 28:  Matt Crafton, driver of the #33 Menards/Rheem Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed The Children 300 at Kentucky Speedway on June 28, 2013 in Sparta, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

SPARTA, KY – JUNE 28: Matt Crafton, driver of the #33 Menards/Rheem Chevrolet, looks on during qualifying for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Feed The Children 300 at Kentucky Speedway on June 28, 2013 in Sparta, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Even if that were the case, Gaughan’s teammate, Ty Dillon, would have to win at Homestead to overcome Crafton’s 46-point lead. Dillon is the only driver with a mathematical chance to overtake Crafton, and it’s a slim chance at that.

Accordingly, it’s easy to forgive Crafton for starting to look ahead and savor a title that isn’t quite official.

“I think we have to go to Homestead and start,” said Crafton, who has finished in the top 10 in NCWTS points for six consecutive seasons and eight of the last nine, but has never won a championship. “I think I’m all right with that. It’s going to feel damn good to go to Homestead and forget about everything and race like hell.”

But to Crafton, 37, there’s another important benefit to holding a 46-point lead.

“Sleep … just being able to sleep, that’s the coolest thing,” Crafton said. “I’m not going to lie. For the last month and a half, it’s been tough.”

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