Our weekly series of interviews continues: 12 questions with NASCAR drivers who aren't currently in the top 12 of the Sprint Cup Series. Since the Chase drivers already get plenty of publicity, we thought this would be a good way to get to know some of the non-Chase drivers a little better. This week: Three-time IndyCar Series champion Sam Hornish Jr. of Penske Racing.
What's the best race you've ever driven in any series?
SH: I think last year, the second Pocono race was a pretty good one. It was my best finish over here (fourth). The big thing was, we had probably a 10th-to-15th-place car and could never get good track position. I did a good job of saving fuel so we could pit before some of the other guys could. We got out there in the top three and ended up finishing fourth. There's a bunch of races I could say, that one just sticks out at me for whatever reason.
Another good one, probably one of the smartest races I ever drove, was my only win in (open-wheel feeder series) Atlantics, at the Chicago Speedway in Cicero (a track that existed from 1999-2002). We blistered like three sets of tires, the right rear in practice. So I basically got out there and let other guys lead – you're supposed to be able to do the race without pitting. I'd let guys at different times of the race get a three-second lead, and as they'd start blistering the tires they'd start slowing down and getting freer and freer. I mean, I just did everything I needed to do to win the race.
There were IndyCar races where I drove really good races and came back at the end, but the only reason we were behind at the time was because I made a mistake early or we were behind in the pits or something like that.
Who do you think is the most talented driver in NASCAR?
SH: I mean, you'd have to say Kyle Busch, right? He wins in any series that he runs. There are a lot of guys that don't win as much as him at the Cup level, let alone run all over the place and win races in the Truck Series and whatnot. He's definitely got a lot of talent.
What's the best time for a fan to approach you for an autograph?
SH: Anytime is OK. There's definitely times though when qualifying hasn't gone well or something where I might be a little more abrasive than I would be on any given day. For me, I really like doing it after practice is over for the day. When I go over in the morning, I've got things I want to talk about or go over what we're going to do. Toward the end of the day, when I get done in the hauler, I've got all the time in the world for signing and I feel like I can get to everybody that wants one as opposed to feeling like I'm going to be late for doing something.
What's something people don't know or understand about you?
SH: I think a lot of people have a misconception of me just because I'm not always out there talking. I do this because I like to race, I love racing and it's not about being the most popular driver or anything like that. I enjoy doing my job and I'm just quiet in general. If I've got something to say, I'll say it, but I don't expect people to take time out of their day to listen to me talk just because there's a camera around.
If you were to advise a new driver in the series, who would you say to learn from and who wouldn't you say to learn from?
SH: Well, for me, there's two guys who if I can be behind them on the track, I feel like I have the best possibility of learning something, and both their names are Jeff: Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton. Jeff Gordon has offered me help if I need it – I didn't even have to go ask him. For me, there's probably times where I should have asked him more questions, but he's definitely the guy who went out of his way the most to try and help me out if I needed it. The bad thing is, there's never enough time, and he's probably one of the busiest guys out there. Me being the person I am, I feel like I'm wasting his time and asking him too many questions.
Right now, I'd probably have to look at AJ (Allmendinger, not to learn from) after the issues at Pocono – I was right around that deal (with Kasey Kahne) – and then Michigan, he ran me down (the track) a couple times. It's like, I could spin him out when somebody blocks you like that, but do you really want to have to race somebody that way? It's not the last lap of the race and it's not for the win, so I'm not going to take that step, but eventually it might get to that point, you know?
If you were put in charge of NASCAR, what's one thing you'd change about the sport?
SH: I'd have a hard time, because we changed the spoiler for the fans because the fans wanted to see the spoiler. But I felt like we were doing a lot better before they put the spoiler on the car, and that's definitely something we've had to work on. So if I was put in charge, that's something I might not have changed (laughs).
Outside of NASCAR, who's the one driver you admire the most?
SH: Living person? Definitely Rick Mears. He was very smart about what he did, methodical, made good decisions on the track, put himself in position to win. Plus he's the guy who I can kind of see myself being a little bit like as far as personality.
How long do you see yourself driving?
SH: I know I'm not ready to quit yet! There's definitely a lot of things I want to do still. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I want to keep running Sprint Cup and continuing to learn over here. I enjoy the racing, I like how much we get to race. I just want to do better at it. I feel there's definitely some room for improvement. We've gotten there in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways we need to continue to work at it.
What's the first thing you do when you walk in the door after a long race weekend?
SH: For a long time, we were remodeling our house in North Carolina. So we'd get home late and put our little girl to bed and then we'd see what got done, what didn't get done, what needed to be redone. Now we're almost done with that, so most of the time I go out in my garage and mess with any of my projects I have going out there.
I've got a TV out there now, so I can kind of re-watch the race to learn and see what anybody did better than we did that day. A lot of the time, it takes me quite awhile to wind down after a race, so even if we get home by midnight or 1 o'clock, I'm still not going to bed until at least 3 or 3:30. I won't be able to sleep, I'll just lay there and think about what happened or whatever. It's easier for me to go to sleep after I've seen it and had an idea what I can do different next time.
Who wins the Sprint Cup in 2015?
SH: That's a good one. Jeff Gordon (laughs). That's what, 20-some years (of driving)? For me to think about how long he's been doing this and how long he's been driving, it's pretty neat for me to sit back and think about how good he continues to be at it. If he stays healthy and keeps wanting to do it, who else can you say that you'd think would still have a good ride at that point in time and be good position to do it? I guess Jimmie (Johnson) and Denny (Hamlin), but Jeff would be the first person I would think could do it at that time.
Do you have any superstitions or routines?
SH: I've tried not to ever really be superstitious. One of the problems is, if you have certain things you gotta do then you start picking them out and saying, ‘Oh, I did a little bit better when I did this.' At some point in time, you're not going to have time to even get in the car because you're going to be going through all your superstition stuff.
Would you rather be known as a great driver or a great person?
SH: I'd probably rather be known as a good person. At the end of the day, most of us aren't going to drive all the way up until the last day of our lives. So you're going to have a lot more time for people to make judgments about you. There are some pretty good drivers out there in the world that I don't think are very good people.