You can't get a much better Father's Day gift than the one received by Sam Hornish Jr. at the Iowa Speedway.
Hornish Jr. substituted for injured Matt Tifft in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and won the Xfinity Series race handily on an off weekend for the Sprint Cup. The irony is that Hornish, Jr., who is without a full-time ride in 2016, had been enjoying more time with his family when he got the call from the Gibbs team to race on Father's Day.
The 35-year-old driver responded by leading 183 of the 250 laps. He was joined by his wife Crystal, two daughters and his son in Victory Lane. "First time that my kids have ever been here when I've won a race, so that means everything to me," he said.
It was not surprising that the Gibbs team gave him a call once Tifft became unavailable due to a back injury. Hornish Jr. won the Iowa race last year for the Gibbs team, where he had eight Xfinity starts. He now has four wins in 111 starts in NASCAR's understudy series.
In a the midst of a major league career that dates back to the 2000 season of the Indy Racing League, Hornish Jr. decided not to take just any offer after he was let go by Richard Petty Motorsports from his Sprint Cup ride following the 2015 season. He told himself, "If I get the right opportunity, I'll go out there and I'll prove it was the right thing to do to wait." Let it be duly noted that the driver insisting on waiting out his career setback is from Defiance, Ohio.
Stock car racing has been a rough road for Hornish Jr. An enthusiastic motorcycle rider, he's had a difficult time maintaining his career balance. After three IndyCar championships and a 2006 victory in the Indy 500, Hornish Jr. became one of those Indy car drivers who transferred to the Sprint Cup and came up empty. In 167 starts, he has only three Top 5 finishes and no victories.
It's not as if Hornish Jr., who is an engaging and level-headed guy, has not had good equipment. He spent four seasons with Roger Penske's powerhouse -- where he won the Indy 500 and one of his three IndyCar titles. Last year, Hornish, Jr. drove full-time in the Sprint Cup for Petty, but led only two races and recorded just three Top 10s. It's probably as much a puzzle to his team owners as it is to Hornish Jr. as to why his Sprint Cup career hasn't gone better.
In retrospect, team owner Penske likely moved Hornish to NASCAR, because he's better on ovals than road courses, which have gradually become a dominant part of the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. While things never quite jelled in the Sprint Cup, the Xfinity Series has been a slightly different tale for Hornish, Jr. He nearly won the championship driving for Penske Racing in 2013, his final season with the team after crossing over from Indy cars in 2008.
This year's layoff didn't seem to hurt on Sunday.
"I got a good idea of what it takes to be fast around here to keep the tires underneath it," he said. But the downtime and winning comeback left him very emotional in the post-race celebration. "I just can't believe it," he said. "You always wait for when you have a car that's this good for something to happen -- run over a piece of debris or whatever. I love coming here to Iowa -- the fans."
There are those who complain that Sprint Cup drivers, or ex-Sprint Cup drivers like Hornish, Jr., should not be able to compete in the Xfinity Series, given their wealth of experience. The concern is putting minor leaguers up against major leaguers, which too often prevents the up-and-coming drivers from winning races, establishing their own success stories, or taking home more purse money.
While it's fair to say defending Sprint Cup champion Kyle Busch has worn out his welcome in the Xfinity Series, there is an element of wealth sharing. Last week at Michigan, when Gibbs driver Daniel Suarez ran down Busch in the closing laps and won, it stamped the Mexican driver as a bona fide candidate to compete in the Sprint Cup.
In Iowa, the 24-year-old Dillon, an Xfinity regular, may have lost the war, but won the battle against Brad Keselowski in the fight for second. How he lost to Hornish, Jr. and how he beat Keselowski on the 0.875-mile track will be valuable lessons for Dillon once he advances to the Sprint Cup full-time.
"We had good speed at the top," said Dillon, who has substituted for Tony Stewart this year and runs a limited schedule with the Circle-Sport-Leavine Family Racing. "It just didn't work out." That's because Dillon elected to slow down in the high groove when he hit traffic instead of diving to the bottom. He might have lost a tenth of a second by running low. But when he got balked in the high line, he lost considerably more time and momentum. The good news was that Chevy driver Dillon was able to use the high line to hold off the oncoming Keselowski.
"I thought we were a little bit better than (Dillon's car)," said Keselowski. "But I just couldn't get by him."
For Hornish Jr., the needle now goes back to zero.
But for one Father's Day, at least, he was the guy who couldn't be beat.
"I was so nervous on Friday getting into the car, thinking 'I'm going to make a mistake.' Man, to go out there and win the way we did, I just can't say anything more about it."