By Chris Knight
NASCAR Wire Service
Distributed by The Sports Xchange
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Sam Hornish Jr. has been busy in 2014. However, it's been mostly outside of a race car.
That's about to change.
While Hornish Jr. has been active with his three children, including his three-month old son, Sam III, the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship runner-up will make his first start of the year in Saturday's Aaron's 312 at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway (3 p.m. ET on ESPN).
The lack of sponsorship left the two-time NNS winner without a ride at Team Penske (formally Penske Racing) after Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway last November, and almost out of the sport altogether, but a call from Joe Gibbs Racing during the off-season gave the Defiance, Ohio, native a seven-race gig and an (another) opportunity.
"You would have to think it felt like a very long time since Miami, closing in on six months, but having a third child, a lot of things happening with having a 6- and 3-year-old and also switching teams, it seems to have gone by very fast," said Hornish, who will drive the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota Camry that has been piloted by Kyle Busch in all eight races this season.
Hornish Jr. did make his Joe Gibbs Racing debut earlier than expected after subbing for Denny Hamlin at Auto Club (Calif.) Speedway in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in March, after Hamlin was diagnosed with a sinus infection that affected his vision. Without any seat time in the No. 11 FedEx Toyota before the start of the Auto Club 400, Hornish Jr. rallied from the back of the field for a respectable 17th-place finish.
"I really feel blessed and fortunate to have the opportunity to get my foot in the door at JGR, to be able to be in the Monster Energy car, to have a sponsor that makes a product that I use on a daily basis and I feel like it's very exciting," Hornish said. "But, on the other hand, we're coming to Talladega and there's a lot of things that are out of a driver's control when it gets down to it. My big thing is just to use this weekend to learn the team a little bit more."
Hornish Jr. enters the ninth race of the season with big shoes to fill. Busch has two wins and top fives in all eight races aboard the No 54, but the 34-year old Hornish is focused on his agenda and expects in time the new partnership will blossom.
"I've gone to a few races starting off the season," Hornish said. "Had the opportunity to listen to Kyle (Busch) and Adam (Steven, crew chief) work together and this is --- I feel like a lot of ways the practice, the qualifying and the first half of the race or first three-quarters of the race -- is me getting to know the team and all of those things.
"I know it's only seven races, but I've already got one freebie this year getting to fill in for Denny (Hamlin) out in California and hopefully will figure out a way to get myself in some more races in this JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) equipment."
For the first time, Hornish Jr. will digest NASCAR's version of "knockout qualifying" and though he has had the opportunity to watch from the sideline, he is not exactly sure what to expect behind the wheel, especially at Talladega.
"I hope it goes really smoothly," Hornish said. "I think it's a great opportunity, but it is a little bit nerve-racking when you look at the JGR situation for this weekend on the Nationwide side. You've got myself, which is the first race that I'm scheduled to be in. Bubba's (Darrell Wallace Jr.) first race of the year and Elliott (Sadler). You want to keep the pack together so you don't want to lose the third guy. So it's going to be a little bit interesting, but I think that's part of the fun of it and there's definitely strategy involved. This is definitely bringing the driver back into it some more."
With nine overall starts at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, it would not be a complete surprise if Hornish Jr. found himself in contention for the win on Saturday, but he knows it will not exactly be a walk in the park either.
"I feel like the last four or five restrictor plate races that I've went to that I've had great opportunities, but I also know the fall race of 2012, I was the first car on the outside line and I'm like, 'I finally did it.' I got to the middle of three and four and I was in position to win this race and about that time I saw the bottom of Tony Stewart's car come up over top and right in front of me.
"Even if you position yourself to where you think coming off four, we're going to have the best opportunity for a great run to get down there, it doesn't mean anything, because it's a long way from the middle of three and four to the start-finish line."
In addition to Talladega, Hornish Jr. will compete at both Iowa events, Road America, Chicagoland, Mid-Ohio and Kentucky in September.