July 02, 2012 | By John Oreovicz
Meet The Nationwide Drivers: Sam Hornish Jr
Sam Hornish Jr. is no stranger to faithful Indianapolis Motor Speedway fans. He passed Marco Andretti exiting Turn 4 on the sprint to the Yard of Bricks to win the 2006 Indianapolis 500 in what was one of the most exciting finishes in the century-long history of the Speedway.
Hornish raced Indy cars from 2000-2007, earning three IZOD IndyCar Series championships in addition to his memorable victory in the Indianapolis 500. After that sustained success, he felt he needed a new challenge and asked for a transfer from Roger Penske’s Indy car team to his NASCAR effort.
It was a brave move by Hornish, who had quickly established himself as the poster boy for the Indy Racing League as an American oval specialist. Hornish won 19 IRL-sanctioned Indy car races, but as the IRL transitioned into the IZOD IndyCar Series with the addition of road racing venues and specialist drivers, Hornish felt his skill-set was more suited for the oval-dominated world of NASCAR.
The transition was not easy. Hornish was a skilled road racer in karts, but struggled on road and street courses when he advanced into Formula Atlantic cars. However, he won an oval Atlantic race at Chicago Motor Speedway, catching the eye of IRL team owner Paul Diatlovich. Hornish ran a partial IRL season for PDM racing in 2000 with a best finish of third place at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
That run led to his big break: signing with IRL front-runner Panther Racing. Hornish won his first two races for Panther at the start of 2001, and he went on to win the IRL championship in 2001 and ’02. Then came The Call: Hornish was asked to join Penske Racing in 2004, and he promptly won his debut race for the legendary team.
However, 2004 and ’05 were a struggle for Penske and all the other teams that didn’t use the dominant Honda engine. In 2006, when all cars in the IRL competed with Honda engines, Hornish claimed his Indianapolis 500 win and his third series championship.
By then, there were already three road races on the IRL schedule and Hornish could sense major changes coming. So he asked Penske for a transfer to NASCAR and ‘The Captain’ complied.
But as several other Indy car drivers who pursued a stock car career found out, the transition from rear-engine open-wheel cars to NASCAR is incredibly difficult. Hornish failed to qualify in his first six attempts at a NASCAR Sprint Cup race in late 2007, and after finishing 15th in his inaugural Daytona 500, Hornish scored only two more top-20 results in his next 37 starts.
His performance improved in 2009, with seven top ten and two top five finishes, but he was still a distant 28th in the rankings. A third and final Sprint Cup campaign left Hornish 29th in the championship and ousted from Penske’s Cup team.
Regrouping, Sam spent time at home in Defiance, Ohio, with his growing family and focused on a part-time Nationwide Series effort, still for Penske. The breakthrough came at Phoenix International Raceway, where Hornish scored his first Nationwide Series win in late 2011.
That led to a full-time Nationwide campaign for Penske in 2012, and Hornish has made the most of it. He currently lies fourth in the Nationwide championship standings with three top five finishes, and must be regarded as one of the strongest candidates to win the inaugural Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the Kroger Super Weekend at the Brickyard.
More importantly, as he returns to the site of his most prestigious race win, Hornish has no regrets about leaving Indy cars to pursue a stock car career.
“At some point you’ve got to take yourself out of your comfort zone and test yourself,” he declared. “Even if it doesn’t go the way you wanted it to, you’re not thinking about it for the rest of your life.
“I know that I accomplished everything that I wanted to in Indy cars and a whole heck of a lot more.”