HUNTERSVILLE – Sam Hornish Jr. hasn’t made a NASCAR start this season, but it hasn’t stopped him from keeping busy.

Hornish, who joined Joe Gibbs Racing for seven Nationwide Series races this year in the No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota, has spent his break training and preparing.

His first race is May 3 at Talladega Superspeedway.

“To have an opportunity to move to a place that has this pedigree, I couldn’t have asked for a better transition (from Team Penske),” Hornish told The Herald Weekly. ”I’ve spent some time at the track just trying to get ready.”

Hornish shares the No. 54 with JGR Sprint Cup driver Kyle Busch, who won in the car at Phoenix International Raceway on March 1.

Busch has had considerable success in the No. 54, a fact that would make some reconsider being its second driver. It didn’t keep Hornish from taking the offer once Team Penske scaled back its Nationwide efforts after last season.

“There’s some pressure that’s involved with this, but at the end of the day, that’s exactly why I did it,” Hornish said. “I’d rather be in something part-time that I can win in, than race full-time in a car that would be tougher to win races.”

His long layoff – Hornish hasn’t raced since the Ford EcoBoost 300 on Nov. 16, 2013 – also gave the 34-year-old more time to spend with his wife, Crystal, and their three children, Addison Faith, Eliza Jo and Sam III.

Hornish works out frequently to keep up his physical fitness. Since he’s not going to race for another six weeks, he’s amped up his cardiovascular training.

“I’ve been working hard at getting back into cycling,” he said. “I love to jog, too. When the weather’s warm I go out and do heat training. I try to do as much cycling and exercising as I can in the hottest weather possible to get ready for the races.”

For those unaccustomed to driving a stock car, Hornish offered a thought of what the feeling is like: “Imagine sitting inside a steel can in a sauna for four hours, and someone’s hitting that can with a stick every few minutes.”

It’s not that Hornish isn’t used to the heat. He was an IndyCar Series driver from 2000 to 2007, winning three championships and the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

The switch to NASCAR in 2008 was tough on Hornish. It took him time to get acclimated to the longer races, closed cockpits and fierce competition from 42 other drivers.

IndyCar fields in Hornish’s open-wheel tenure were barely half as large as NASCAR’s. He also wasn’t sitting behind a 260-degree engine.

Hornish found his footing in the Nationwide Series, where he’s won five poles and two races.

Being out of a car for so long has its advantages in terms of family time, but Hornish is ready for a return.

He wasn’t sure how much time to spend at JGR’s shop once he was hired, because he didn’t want to impose on anyone.

“It still feels like it’s got that first day of high school feeling,” Hornish said. “I haven’t driven that first race yet.

“It’s like I’m having to wait four months to unwrap my Christmas present.”