TALLADEGA — Sam Hornish Jr. may not have been in a Nationwide ride in six months, but he hasn’t forgotten how to get to the front.
Hornish, who lost his Penske Nationwide ride shortly after last season’s final race despite finishing second in the series, grabbed the pole for today’s Aaron’s 312 in his Nationwide debut for Joe Gibbs Racing on Friday.
In fact, he led a 1-2-3 sweep for JGR in the first knockout qualifying ever at Talladega Superspeedway.
Hornish won his sixth career pole inside the last minute of the five-minute final round of the unique format, passing teammates Elliott Sadler and Darrell Wallace with a top speed of 186.783 mph. Sadler grabbed the outside pole at 186.776 and Wallace, making his Talladega Nationwide debut, was third fastest at 186.729. They were the only three cars to run under 52 seconds in the final round.
“While it’s been a long time to wait to get here to Talladega, it’s been really great for me that it happens at this track to give us that opportunity,” Hornish said. “The last time I qualified a car I sat on the pole (Homestead), so I kept the streak alive.”
Hornish, a former Indy Car champion and Indianapolis 500 winner, came within three points of winning the Nationwide series title last year, but lost his ride when Penske couldn’t find enough sponsorship money to keep the team alive. He could have stayed with the company in another role, but took the Gibbs offer for a chance to drive again and perhaps expand his role. He has a seven-race deal to drive Kyle Busch’s No. 54 Toyota and Friday fate — rather Elliott — led him to a pole his first time out.
“They say patience is a virtue,” he said. “I feel like there are people who may have questioned my decision-making in doing this, but I couldn’t be more blessed to have this opportunity.
“I don’t believe it was in anybody’s mind to (set him up to win the pole). I feel like it really is a little bit about me using some of the techniques about trying to stay with Elliott, a little bit about being in the middle there and a little bit of just maybe divine intervention to make me feel even better about the decision I made. If they had any kind of plan like that, they sure didn’t tell me about it.”
The star of the day was the knockout qualifying. The drivers gave it high marks for creating interest, but guys like top rookie qualifier Ryan Reed called extricating from the parking lot pit road became at the start of each session “pretty crazy.” He found Round 1 the most chaotic and it less so as the field got pared.
“It’s only a lot of trouble if you get yourself into trouble,” Reed said. “It’s really cool and a lot of fun. I think it was pretty entertaining.”
The three JGR cars got in a little trouble and almost didn’t make it through. With Sadler taking the blame for not upholding his responsibility to his two less-experienced teammates, the JGR cars were 21 (Hornish), 22 (Sadler) and 24 (Wallace) after the first stage that trimmed the field from 43 to 24. They were 1-2-3 after Round 2 (Wallace-Hornish-Sadler).
They topped out at 187.364 in Round 1. They were all 188-plus in Round 2 that reduced the qualifying field to 12.
Brandon Gaughan ran the fastest lap in Round 1 and at 191.058 was the only driver in the round to top 190. He ultimately qualified 11th as the cars played cat-and-mouse throughout the hour-long session.
“I about messed up the first round and didn’t get the gap I needed in front of my car to get a pull to make a fast lap and we barely made it,” Sadler said. “I feel responsible for Darrell because I was the lead car, but we made adjustments to what we did as far as the second and third rounds.”
“Actually we took it for granted. We actually thought it would be easy to get in the top 24 and maybe we didn’t play close enough attention to who we were going to draft off of and we saw it bite some bigger teams. Some really good cars didn’t make the top 24. We learned our lesson the first run. … We did what we wanted to do. We wanted all three JGR cars up front no matter who was first, second and third, and were able to pull that off so we’re going to call this a pretty successful day.”
The new qualifying format wasn’t so good for a couple teams. Series points leader Chase Elliott, the son of NASCAR legend Bill Elliott who has gone 1-1-2 in his last three races starting no worse than sixth, barely made it into the race as the 40th qualifier in the first round; he’ll start 37th. Kasey Kahne, defending race winner Regan Smith, top 10 Dylan Kwasniewski, J.J. Yeley and Joe Nemechek also didn’t get through the first round.
“Those car are going to be up front in 10 laps,” Sadler said. “It’s just they didn’t get a tow at the right time; that’s all it is. That just adds to the dynamic of this qualifying. It won’t have anything to do with how they’re going to run tomorrow. The pit selection might not be what they want, but I bet you in 10-12 laps the 7 car (Smith), Kasey Kahne, those guys are going to be up front with no problem.”