NEWTON, Iowa — For me, Sunday afternoon’s American Ethanol e15 250 for the NASCAR XFINITY Series started to feel like one last hurrah as the laps wound down and Sam Hornish Jr. continued to drive further and further into the Iowa sunset.
And listening to the Defiance, Ohio native hold back tears in victory lane — with his wife and children alongside him on Father’s Day — you got the impression just how hard Hornish was driving, what he was driving for and how important it was for him to go out and make a final, brilliant statement at stock car racing’s national levels.
This was a man who had won three Indy car championships, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 for Roger Penske and tasted success driving for both Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing — but had been relegated to working as a substitute teacher in his children’s school system after his opportunities in the Cup Series (and before that the XFINITY Series) dried up thanks to a lack of sponsorship at the end of 2015.
He had driven for top tier teams in stock car racing and run solidly, if underwhelming at times, but never had the success that he was used to from his time decimating the competition in the open wheel realm. Three XFINITY wins and seven poles, along with just 12 top 10s at the premier Cup level, was nothing to scream to the world about when he had come from consistently finishing on the podium and winning races and championships in another walk of motorsports.
In fact, Hornish had hung up his helmet at the end of last year following a dismal run at Richard Petty Motorsports and accepted that this was the time to sit back and enjoy life with his family, to turn the page and move forward into a new chapter.
At that point, he told Sports Illustrated that he was happy moving on from the driver’s seat. Why? Because he could enjoy being a fan.
“I love racing so much more now because I get to be a fan of it,” he explained. “I watch the races. If I like who won, I’ll listen to the interview. If I don’t, I can shut it off. It’s like being a kid again.”
His last opportunity in top equipment was when he drove a handful of races for, ironically enough, Joe Gibbs Racing in the then-Nationwide Series in 2014, sharing a car with Kyle Busch — and he just-so-happened to win at Iowa in the same race he won on Sunday.
But this time was more special. This time, not only was the race on Father’s Day, but — for the first time — his children were there to share in the enormity of the day with him.
“The kids were all born after my IndyCar career, and they weren’t at the NASCAR races I happened to win (before) either,” Hornish said of the emotions behind his victory lane celebration and interview. “I can’t put into words what this means to me. I worked so hard to try and get a win when I had my kids here. … and to go out there and win the way we did is amazing. This is one of the best wins I’ve ever had; I can guarantee you that.”
I don’t know about anyone else, but that spoke volumes to me — not just about the moment, but about the way Hornish drove to get there.