Pinch Hitter Hornish Claims Iowa Checkers

Sam Hornish Jr. celebrates after winning Sunday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Iowa Speedway. (HHP/Gregg Ellman Photo)
Sam Hornish Jr. celebrates after winning Sunday's NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Iowa Speedway. (HHP/Gregg Ellman Photo)
Sam Hornish Jr. celebrates after winning Sunday’s NASCAR XFINITY Series race at Iowa Speedway. (HHP/Gregg Ellman Photo)

NEWTON, Iowa – Before Sunday Sam Hornish Jr. hadn’t raced in NASCAR since last November, but it didn’t slow him down as he dominated the NASCAR XFINTY Series American Ethanol E15 250 at Iowa Speedway for his fourth career series victory.

Hornish, who most recently had been working as a substitute teacher, got the call from Joe Gibbs Racing on Monday to drive the No. 18 Toyota in place of Matt Tifft. Tifft was forced to miss Sunday’s race because of a back injury, opening the door for Hornish to step in.

Hornish qualified third, but moved to the front row after polesitter Erik Jones was forced to start from the rear of the field for unapproved body modifications prior to the race. Daniel Suarez, who scored his first XFINITY Series win last weekend at Michigan Int’l Speedway, took the lead at the start.

Suarez’s lead didn’t last long, as Hornish chased him down and took the lead for the first time on lap 24. He gave up the lead a few more times during pit stops, but every single time he lost the lead Hornish was able to move back to the front in short order.

With 58 laps left J.J. Yeley spun to bring out the caution flag after contact with Drew Herring, setting up pit stops under caution. Because of previous issues during pit stops, Hornish’s pit crew swapped places with the crew of Erik Jones, who was trapped multiple laps down after a fuel pick-up problem earlier in the day.

The call to swap pit crew paid off for Hornish, who got off pit road first ahead of Ty Dillon and Brad Keselowski. During the restart Hornish retained the lead after fending off a brief challenge from Dillon.

The final caution flag of the day waved on lap 217 when Drew Herring spun off the nose of teammate Dakoda Armstrong. Most of the lead-lap cars had already used up their allotted amount of tires for the day, so none of the leaders came down pit road.

The green flag waved again with 27 laps left and Hornish went right to work, quickly clearing Dillon in turn one to maintain the lead.

From that point forward Hornish was on cruise control, eventually beating Dillon to the finish line by nearly 1.5 seconds for his first XFINITY Series victory of the year in his first start of the season. He led a race-high 183 laps en route to the triumph.

“It doesn’t get much better than that,” said Hornish, who was previously confirmed to drive the No. 2 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet in two XFINITY Series races later this year. “I’ve just got to thank Toyota and everybody at Joe Gibbs Racing for getting me out here and giving me this opportunity. I’ve got my wife and kids here, it’s the first time the kids got to be here for one of Dad’s wins.

“I can’t tell you what this means to me. I worked so hard to try and get a win when I had my kids here and the fact of how all this went on, I’ve just got to thank God. He makes things happen. I was so nervous on Friday getting into the car thinking I was going to make a mistake.

“To go out there and win the way that we did, I just can’t say anything more about it.”

Dillon finished second, coming up short of his second career XFINITY Series victory. His lone series triumph came in 2014 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

“We just needed to be a little bit better. That 18 (Hornish) was so dominant on the bottom,” Dillon said. “I felt like we were obviously the best car up to, just needed a little bit more speed.”

Keselowski, the only full-time Sprint Cup competitor in the field, finished third. Suarez finished fourth and Alex Bowman completed the top five.