HOMESTEAD, Fla. ? Sam Hornish Jr. won the pole, led 37 laps and for almost half of Saturday's Ford EcoBoost 300 season finale had put himself in prime position to swipe the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship away from Austin Dillon.
But a late race restart, a controversial extended yellow-flag period and just not enough oomph in his No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford kept him from holding off a late race rally by Dillon and so Hornish's season fell three points shy of a first NASCAR title.
Hornish finished eighth and Dillon, the grandson of Sprint Cup Series owner Richard Childress finished 12th ? just close enough to claim his second title in a NASCAR national series. Dillon won the 2011 Camping World Truck Series title.
"We weren't good enough tonight to go out there and win the race," Hornish said. "I felt like we were a top-four car, but on that last restart, the inside row didn't go good and we got gobbled up.
"I just couldn't hold on. I looked in my mirror and saw the 3 (Dillon) and 33 (Austin's brother Ty Dillon) there running side by side and I thought, 'well that's going to make it pretty hard for anyone to pass Austin.'
"But that's the name of the game and hats off to Austin. I wish we could have brought it home. But this was a great opportunity."
Leaning against his Ford on Homestead-Miami Speedway's pit road following the race, Hornish wouldn't come right out and question NASCAR's decision not to red flag the race after an accident with 17 laps remaining. But he did wonder why it took 12 laps to clean up the mess.
"I was getting a little flustered that there wasn't a red flag, that there was so many laps of yellow because it seems like most of the time we would have stopped then," Hornish said.
"I was told during that caution there were multiple Cup drivers that were tweeting why isn't there a red flag. Those are the guys that know.
"But it doesn't matter. When you get a little behind in these deals and have to finish in a certain spot. It's a tough one to swallow but at the end of the day we knew we were coming in as the outside (chance) to win."
With no ride confirmed for 2014, Hornish faces one of the more uncertain off-seasons he's had in a celebrated racing career that also includes three IndyCar championships and the 2006 Indy 500 before he came to NASCAR full time in 2008.
Penske Racing President Tim Cindric waited in the track's garage area after the race to congratulate Hornish on a good season and a successful 10-year tenure with the team. This season he won three four poles, the Las Vegas race and was ranked first or second in the championship for all but one week.
Cindric said he and the other Penske executives would lobby other team owners on Hornish's behalf.
"He's been 10 years with our organization and we want nothing but the best for him," Cindric said. "We're his biggest allies. I think there's some positive things going in his direction we'll just have to see how they play out."
Legendary team owner Roger Penske echoed Cindric's sentiments after celebrating the series' owner's championship with the No. 22 Ford (driven by Joey Logano at Homestead) and his Cup driver Brad Keselowski's race victory in a third Penske Ford.
"To see Sam race tonight at the level he did with Kyle (Busch) right there all night, shows what a great racer he is,'' Penske said. "My issue with myself is I started him in the Cup level (2008) with no practice. One of the greatest open-wheel racers we had in IndyCar and I think maybe I started his (stock car) career backwards.
"I think people today want him. I think he's going to have a chance to drive something next year. I would support him always."
Hornish was upbeat about his future even as he took in what looks to be his final ride with the Penske organization, joking, "Think of all the interviews I'd have had to do if I won, that would have been real rough (with no ride next year)."
His pregnant wife and two young daughters are all in South Florida for the race weekend and he said he was looking forward to celebrating a good season at the Nationwide Series Awards Banquet in Miami Beach on Monday night.
"I'm going to come out to the track tomorrow, walk around and try to talk to some people and figure out what's going to happen for next year," Hornish said mustering a smile. "Beyond that, I don't know. But I'm going to enjoy this, that's for sure."
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