The Racing Capital
of the World
Jul 23, 2017
November 13, 2011 | By Bruce Martin
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- It was only fitting that Sam Hornish Jr.’s first NASCAR victory would come at Phoenix International Raceway. It was 10 years ago, on March 18, 2001, that Hornish drove to his first IZOD IndyCar Series win at PIR.
Since that time, Hornish became an IndyCar star, including three series championships, 19 victories and a win in the biggest race of them all – the 2006 Indianapolis 500.
Hornish left the IZOD IndyCar Series for NASCAR Sprint Cup for the 2008 season but struggled to find the front of the field. This year, he ran a limited number of races in the Nationwide Series. His perseverance finally paid off Saturday at Phoenix when he drove to victory in the Wypall 200. Hornish, from Defiance, Ohio, used a two-tire pit stop late in the race to take the lead, protected it over three restarts and went on to defeat Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski.
Hornish choked back tears and emotion in victory lane after his first NASCAR win. Not only did he appreciate the trials that it took to win in NASCAR, but he also remembered another former Indianapolis 500 winner.
“One of the toughest things was running the Dan Wheldon visor strip,” Hornish said. “He ran his first two races at Panther as my teammate. I wouldn’t say that we were the best of friends, but we raced the heck out of each other quite a bit. We actually tied for the 2006 championship. He’s somebody I’ll miss racing quite a bit.”
Wheldon, who won the 2005 and 2011 Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IZOD IndyCar Series championship, was killed in a crash during the IZOD IndyCar Series race on Oct. 16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“I’ve been pretty emotional at times,” Hornish said. “I feel like there’s a lot of good days. Today is great, but tomorrow is going to be even better ‘cause I’m going to see my little girl for the first time in a week-and-a-half. Two weeks ago, I was getting my little girl ready for bed, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and she turned to me and said she told me, ‘I’m complicated.’”
Hornish was so good behind the wheel of an Indy car that his wins came with impressive frequency. In fact, Hornish often appeared aloof in victory lane because wins were nearly expected.
“I won so much over there that I didn’t know how much to appreciate it at the time,” Hornish said. “I came over here and I wanted the challenge of racing these cars because it was the next step. It was something new, it was something that motivated me again. There was many times where I shook my head and go ‘Why did I do this?’ But I did know that I would always regret not trying it so I’m just really, really excited that we were able to keep going. It ranks right up there. My next goal is I want to run for a championship next year and get the funding to be able to do that and then obviously how to figure out how to win a Sprint Cup race.
“I feel like I’m a lot closer (to being a NASCAR driver). I feel like a lot of the other drivers may have questioned that at times but then when they saw me stick with it and run a part-time schedule this year because this is where I wanted to be. I want to be successful over here and not knocking IndyCar in any way, shape or form. I’m just super-excited about this opportunity. I feel like I’ve been a NASCAR driver for a while, but I didn’t have that win checked off there. We’ve got one down, and we’ll keep working at it some more.”
Hornish is attempting to run the full Nationwide Series schedule next season for Penske Racing, although the deal has not been completed.
“Today probably helped us out a little bit,” Hornish said.
Keselowski is one of the most competitive drivers in NASCAR and usually doesn’t settle for a second-place finish. But seeing Hornish take the checkered flag just ahead of him gave Keselowski a bit of a smile.
“Man, that sure is great,” Keselowski said. “Sam has paid a lot of dues in NASCAR, and it’s great to see him get some success out of it. This is like his third or fourth year. That Nationwide team with Chad Walter and Alliance Truck Parts and him, they’re going to be tough to beat next year if they can run for the championship. I hope RP (Roger Penske) can put that together. He’d be the favorite if he can run he did today.”
When it comes to winning the Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske is the all-time best. His cars have won the world’s biggest race a record 15 times in his career, including Hornish’s amazing victory in 2006 when he passed race leader Marco Andretti just a few hundred feet from the checkered flag at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When Hornish switched to Penske’s NASCAR team for the 2008 season he knew it would be a difficult transition. But after three seasons in Cup Hornish had to make the difficult decision to go from full-time Cup to part-time Nationwide.
“Well, I feel for Sam,” Penske said. “He’s been real humble for the last 12-18 months, coming off being an Indy 500 winner, coming over here and aspirations to run up out front. Maybe I made a mistake putting him at the top when he couldn’t practice, but the two of us decided to stay together. I’ve got to thank Chad (Walter, crew chief) and obviously Sam because a lot of the success we’ve had on the Cup side has been because these guys have been doing all the testing.
“I think this sets up for what we want to do next year. Obviously, our goal is to run for the championship in Nationwide with Sam next year. Both of the cars running one-two is pretty special because there’s real competition out there today and to run here on a new track is exceptional. I just want to thank Sam. I remember when we raced here when we went back in Indy, and Sam whipped us here with that yellow Pennzoil car. I’ll never forget that. This is a special place for us.”
When Hornish was struggling to adapt to NASCAR, Penske was able to encourage him.
“I don’t know if I was always as optimistic as Roger is, but Roger told me to keep my head down and don’t beat myself,” Hornish said. “I look back at 2008 and felt like I had a great opportunity in 2008, coming over and running and what happened that year was I’d been so accustomed to being first all the time that when I came over I didn’t how to take a 15th. Two 15ths beat a first and a 43rd. It took me a while to be able to get back there, and plus you race every weekend and this year has been something to think about.
“Roger told me I was my own worst critic. You just have to do the best that you can and continue to move forward. I’m glad that I stuck it out. This is what want. I came over here not because there was more money or anything like that. It was because I got an opportunity. I was interested in it, I got an opportunity to run some Nationwide races throughout 2007, and after doing that I got to see that there was something different out there to challenge me again. Was it the challenge I thought it was? Heck, yeah, it was. It was a big challenge, for sure. I don’t think I ever got to a point where I didn’t feel like if I kept my head down and I put myself in the right position I was going to win.”
And that right time finally arrived as the sun began to set in the western sky of the Arizona desert as Hornish kept the sun from setting on his racing career.
“Having to step back, and to do the work they did to keep the team going and literally piece it together, and this is a byproduct of hard work and commitment,” Penske said. “You’re going to see a lot of Hornish in the winner’s circle in the future.”
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