When Sam Hornish Jr. joined NASCAR full time in 2008, he expected to continue the success he had in the IndyCar Series, where he was a three-time champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner.
He struggled instead, getting demoted from the Sprint Cup Series to the Nationwide Series in 2011, when he got his only NASCAR victory in Phoenix.
Hornish made his long-awaited return to Victory Lane on Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, holding off Las Vegas native Kyle Busch to win the aptly named 17th annual Sam’s Town 300.
“I didn’t really even realize it was the Sam’s Town 300 until this morning at the driver’s meeting,” Hornish said. “I said, ‘That’s a pretty good one for me to win. I already have my name on the trophy.’ ”
The victory snapped a 36-race winless streak for Hornish, 33, who was able to appreciate the win more than his first one — which came only a month after IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon was killed in a fiery 15-car crash at LVMS.
“I didn’t really feel like celebrating at that time,” he said. “With the loss of Dan at this racetrack, there were a lot of questions in my mind about what should I be doing with the rest of my life and things like that, also just knowing it could be anybody. ... I had to basically use my faith to be able to figure out what’s the right thing for me.”
Hornish led for 114 of 200 laps in his dominant No. 12 Penske Racing Ford.
“You dream about having cars like this,” he said. “I think I used more energy celebrating than I did actually driving the car today.”
Hornish outlasted Busch down the stretch despite dealing with two restarts in the final 15 laps.
“I was half happy the yellow came out on the next-to-last restart,” he said. “Kyle was playing a game with me, trying to make me go, and I fell into the trap and didn’t have a very good restart, so the fact I had an opportunity to try again and was able to hold him off was a good thing.
“When you have a car like we did and can beat someone as good on restarts as Kyle Busch is, it’s like a cherry on top.”
Busch, who led 13 laps in his No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, finished second — matching his best Nationwide Series finish at LVMS — after starting 23rd.
“It stinks, man,” said Busch, who was coming off a Nationwide Series win at Phoenix last week. “We fought real hard all day and had a great piece.
“Sam was that much faster than us. There at the end, it felt like we were getting beat everywhere. Us two were the class of the field, but he was the class of everybody.”
Busch’s teammates Brian Vickers and Elliott Sadler placed third and fifth. Trevor Bayne was fourth and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 14th in a rare Nationwide start.
Busch, who won the Sprint Cup race here in 2009, also placed second in the Sam’s Town 300 in 2007.
“This is probably one of my worst mile-and-a-halfs, and we ran pretty good today,” Busch said. “Second is not bad.”
After years of struggling in NASCAR, the victory was especially sweet for Hornish.
“I’ve had some hard hits to the ego,” he said. “To go through some of the things we’ve gone through the past six years ... it’s wonderful.
“That’s what racing is all about. You have ups and downs. You’ve got to remember it’s just a game, but it means a whole heck of a lot to us.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354.