DES MOINES, Iowa – Most of the drivers Sam Hornish Jr. whipped on his way to winning at Iowa Speedway last week simply went on to the next racetrack.
Hornish went home.
For the most part, Hornish is fine with that.
Despite nearly winning the NASCAR Nationwide series in 2013, Hornish's sponsorship money dried up — as did his full-time ride with Penske Racing.
So Hornish settled for a part-time deal with Joe Gibbs Racing to drive the No. 54 car when star Kyle Busch couldn't.
Hornish drove it about as well as Busch ever did in Iowa on Sunday.
Hornish led 167 of the 250 laps and cruised to victory. It reminded everyone — including Hornish — that he's still good enough to win races.
"It felt pretty darn good, I'll tell you that much," Hornish said. "I saw Kyle win so much last year in the car, and he's a great talent. I felt like, if I could put myself in the same equipment and go out there and win, I deserve it and I belong doing this. If I can't win, I need to figure something else out."
Hornish makes it clear that, in a perfect world, he wouldn't mind landing a full-time ride with JGR for 2015.
But after nearly 15 years in every kind of car imaginable, Hornish has embraced the opportunity to spend more time with his wife, Crystal, and their three young children.
Hornish began his career in top-level racing back in 2000 as a promising 21-year-old kid in what was then the Indy Racing League. He quickly became the top open-wheel driver in the U.S., winning back-to-back IndyCar titles in 2001 and 2002, and in 2006 he finally captured the Indy 500 with a thrilling last-lap pass of Marco Andretti.
By then, Hornish was already eyeing a jump to NASCAR.
He found life in the Sprint Cup series much tougher than open-wheel racing.
Hornish recorded just two top-five finishes in 106 starts with the No. 77 car for Penske, and he soon found himself running predominantly in the second-tier Nationwide series.
But Hornish promised himself after a humbling Cup experience that he'd never again run in a car he couldn't win with.
That's why he eagerly accept a seven-race stint in Busch's Nationwide ride — the dominant one in the series for years — over a more serious commitment in inferior equipment.
"There are probably opportunities where I could race more," he said. "But that doesn't mean I would have any opportunity to win more. The 54 gave me an opportunity to go out there and win races, and we've already proven that right."
Even as a part-time driver, Hornish's duties with JGR keep him busy. But he's also got another month before his next race, at Road America on June 21, and he won't spend that time worrying about his racing future.
Instead, Hornish is planning to take his family back to his home state of Ohio. The Hornishes may also head up to Chicago, and he's kicking around the idea of a trip to New England before the summer is out.
Hornish certainly didn't choose to have so much free time on his hands this season.
But he plans to make the most of it.
"It's been good in a lot of ways because I get to do a lot of things with my family that I haven't been able to do in a while," Hornish said. "I can take care of responsibilities as a husband and a dad. Racing for me is kind of like my guilty pleasure. It's something that I want to do and that I am really interested in, but at the end of the day it's not the end all, be all."