Sam Hornish Jr. wasn’t supposed to be competing in Saturday night's Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway. In fact, the Penske Racing Nationwide Series driver was back in Charlotte working as an analyst for SPEED on the television program SPEED Center.
But during commercial, Hornish reached into his pocket to check his cell phone which had kept buzzing while he was on the air.
“I was standing there with my phone in my pocket getting ready to go sit down to answer the question of who my pick was going to be for the night and also what it takes to be someone that they want to draft with," he said. “My phone started vibrating and I looked at it and I’m like, ‘I can’t take it right now, even though I know it’s important' – because I knew this was a live show.
"I did the show and they wanted to tape something for tomorrow and they said ‘Can we tape something?’ and I’m like ‘I have to make a call quick’ and then it was, ‘Nope, I can’t.’”
It was then when Hornish learned he was being called into duty by his Penske Racing team as a last-minute replacement for AJ Allmendinger, who had just been suspended by NASCAR for violating its substance abuse policy.
Hornish quickly trekked to the airport to catch a waiting plane to Daytona and as he did that, the No. 22 team was tasked with refitting its Dodge with a seat, pedals and a steering column to fit Hornish's specifications.
And because this all unfolded in a short amount of time, and because the green flag was rapidly approaching, some special accommodations were made.
“It’s kind of a weird thing landing in an airplane and see cop lights sitting there at the airport,” he said. “It was close, we were within minutes. If we had taken off 10 minutes later, I don’t know what they would have done.”
So there was Hornish, driving a car he hadn't practiced, racing underneath the green flag in just his second Cup race of the year.
“The big thing was I wanted to take a couple of laps to feel the car out, feel exactly what was good, what I liked and didn’t like about it and give myself an opportunity to feel the car out,” Hornish said. “It was actually a little tighter than I would have liked it to be.
“But all-in-all, I couldn’t have asked for much more on that short of a time period. The head rest was awful; the steering wheel was off a bit. But I knew all that because I didn’t have the time to take all the steps you normally take to get yourself ready for one of these races.”
When everything was said and done, Hornish finished the night in 33rd place after a blown a tire caused him to spin out. Overall, it was an experience which he referred to as “different.”