Now, Hornish understands the value of having the right ride. So he relishes his shot to win in the Nationwide series this year - even if those chances aren't coming every week.
Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and a three-time series champion in Indy-style racing, is racing a part-time Nationwide schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing in 2014.
He's splitting the No. 54 car with Sprint Cup series star Kyle Busch, so he'll only get to race when Busch can't.
His next opportunity is Saturday's race at Road America, a scenic 4-mile road course that winds through the tree-lined hills of central Wisconsin.
"There were a lot of people that had negative comments about the fact that I was running a part-time schedule," Hornish said.
"But you need to look at what the 54 has done over the past couple of years, what the strength of the JGR organization is. I feel like I'd rather have seven shots at it with an opportunity to win every time, rather than (a full schedule) and knowing that if I come home 10th, everybody on the team is going to be happy."
Hornish took the part-time ride at Gibbs this year after losing his Nationwide ride at Team Penske; despite his second-place finish to Austin Dillon in the Nationwide drivers' championship standings in 2013, his sponsorship dried up and the team didn't have a place for him.
In three Nationwide races this year - two in the No. 54 car and one in the No. 20 car - he has a victory at Iowa, a second-place finish last week at Michigan and a fifth-place finish at Talladega.
And he likes his chances at Road America, where he has finished fifth each of the past two years.
It's one of Hornish's favorite tracks, one he visited as a fan on family vacations and raced on in open-wheel cars early in his career.
"I remember sitting down in Turn 5 as a kid watching the Indy car race," Hornish says. "Any time you can go back to a place that you have these happy childhood memories from, from a vacation or whatever it happened to be, that's always a good thing."
A win at Road America would add to the already compelling case Hornish is making for another shot at the top-tier Sprint Cup series, where he's still fighting the stigma of the disappointing first impression he made from 2008 to 2010.
Getting back to Cup remains his ultimate goal, but he won't necessarily take any opportunity that comes his way.
"I'm going to be a little more choosy about that at this point in time, because I know that I can't carry the car," Hornish said.
"Nobody can. You can put even the best drivers in the Cup series in a car that's not capable of running in the top 15, and they might get a 12th out of it a day here and there. But that's not enough to keep yourself where you want to be or to move up to that next ride."
For now, Hornish wants to make the most of the opportunities he has while appreciating the additional time he has at home with his wife and three kids - a different kind of full-time schedule.
"I went to being kind of a glorified limo driver or taxi driver, taking kids here and there," Hornish says. "But it's awesome. There's been so many part of this year that I would have heard about, instead of being able to experience."
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