Sam Hornish Jr. was overjoyed just at being able to participate in Happy Hour on Saturday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
Hornish didn't get to experience the final Sprint Cup practice prior to last Saturday's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway, where he was a last-minute replacement for AJ Allmendinger in the No. 22 Dodge fielded by Penske Racing. Allmendinger was suspended temporarily by NASCAR prior to last Saturday's race for failing a random drug test and remains out of the No. 22 car while he awaits results of a second test.
Last Saturday Hornish got the word that he was filling in for Allmendinger so late, he barely made the start of the race. He was working as a television analyst on a show in Charlotte, N.C., when he got the word during a commercial break that he was wanted in the seat of the car for a race that was going to start in just a few hours.
That left no time for Happy Hour. No time for anything. All he could do was fly to Daytona and jump in the car. He finished 33rd in the race.
This week is different. Hornish, who was also entered in Saturday's F.W. Webb 200 Nationwide race, has been in the Sprint Cup car at every opportunity this weekend as he prepares for this Sunday's LENOX Industrial Tools 301. He admitted it still feels rushed, but at least this week is less rushed than last week and his team has been able to make some adjustments to the car more to his individual liking. He also joked Friday that the Penske racing team has been able to order some larger fire suits to fit him.
"It seems like we're always rushing a little bit, unfortunately," Hornish said. "I'm either trying really hard to get down to Daytona or we're a little bit behind in the qualifying line. There's just not a lot of time to sit in the car and think about it before it's time to go.
"I'm really proud of all the effort that everybody has put in to be able to make this work. It's been a lot more work for everybody other than me -- but at the end of the day, we're just doing the best that we can right now to make sure that we've got an opportunity for Sunday. This is one of my favorite tracks. I'm glad that we've got some time to practice it this week versus just coming in and doing it on Sunday."
In Saturday's final practice, Hornish was a respectable 16th on the speed chart with a fast lap of 130.331 mph that came late in the session as his lap times improved throughout.
That was still off the pace set byDenny Hamlin, who was fastest in Happy Hour with a top lap of 131.383 mph at the 1.058-mile track. Following Hamlin on the speed chart was pole-sitterKyle Busch, Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate who posted a fast lap of 131.243 mph. Rounding out the top six were Brad Keselowski (130.936 mph),Clint Bowyer (130.837),Jimmie Johnson (130.743) andBrian Vickers (130.698), who was impressive in the No. 55 Toyota he only occasionally gets to drive.
Hornish, meanwhile, was pleased just to gain the additional time behind the wheel of the No. 22. He admitted that his main focus continues to be on the Nationwide Series, where he entered Saturday fourth in the point standings and still in the championship hunt. He said he doesn't buy into the theory he has heard espoused by others that having to drive the Cup car in addition to his usual Nationwide car might be a little much for him.
"You know, a lot of people are talking about that and I think the big thing for us is that we've just got to keep doing the same things that we're doing over there," Hornish said. "If we get to the point where we feel like it's taking away at all, we'll make an adjustment. But I think having the opportunity to have more track time never hurts."
He admitted that he doesn't know what the future holds in terms of what happens with Allmendinger and the Penske Cup ride. Regardless of what occurs with Allmendinger's suspension, the No. 22 team had been struggling and Allmendinger is working on a one-year contract, as is Hornish.
Hornish raced full time in the Cup Series for Penske for three seasons, beginning in 2008 and ending in 2010. In 111 career Cup starts, he has posted two top-five and eight top-10 finishes. So his goals for Sunday are modest.
"My goal for this weekend is to go out there have a smart, clean race. I'd love to finish on the lead lap," Hornish said. "I know if we do that, we'll be in the top 20. ... I'd be happy if we finished in the top 10. I might be disappointed if we finished outside the top 20."