The Racing Capital
of the World
March 10, 2013 | By Bruce Martin
There were many times in Sam Hornish Jr.’s spectacular IZOD IndyCar Series career when he was so fast, so good that it left his competitors saying, “Wow.”
During the NASCAR Nationwide Series race Saturday, March 9 at Las Vegas, Kyle Busch had one of those “wow” moments when he saw Hornish’s No. 12 Wurth Penske Ford Mustang blow past him and drive away.
“You wouldn’t believe how fast Hornish is,” Busch radioed to his crew. “His car is so fast you just wouldn’t believe it. He’s driving away from me.”
Despite two late-race cautions, including a final restart where Hornish was the leader and chose the outside lane to start alongside Busch, Hornish was able to take the lead for good and drive to the checkered flag to score his second career NASCAR Nationwide Series victory in the Sam’s Town 300.
“I was half-happy that the yellow came out after that next to last restart because I didn’t feel like I got a good one and Kyle was playing a game with me trying to make me go, and I fell into the trap and didn’t have a good restart,” Hornish said. “The fact that we had an opportunity to try again and I got the proper run on the restart and was able to hold him off was a good thing. I have had races in IndyCar where I have led 160 laps and somehow on the last 40 it fell apart because of yellows and restarts and all that. You never like to see it, but you have a car like you do today and you can beat someone as good on restarts as Kyle Busch is, and it makes you feel pretty good about your day. That is the cherry on top that we had those two restarts that we were able to hold him off.”
Hornish earned his status as a Brickyard Legend as the most dominant IZOD IndyCar series driver of his era. After an impressive rookie season with PDM Racing in 2000, Hornish hit the big time with Pennzoil Panther Racing in 2001 when he scored his first career IndyCar Series title. He won the championship again in 2002 when he fought off a new team in the series – Team Penske.
Hornish was so impressive in his battles against Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran that team owner Roger Penske decided if his team couldn’t beat Hornish, might as well hire him. So when de Ferran retired at the end of 2003, Hornish joined Penske’s elite IndyCar operation.
In 2006, Hornish achieved his lifelong goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to score his third IZOD IndyCar Series crown that year.
Hornish would leave IndyCar after the 2007 season and become a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. But after several disappointing seasons in Cup, Hornish was not afraid to take a step back in his career to improve his stock car skills in the Nationwide Series.
He drove to an emotional victory at Phoenix International Raceway for his first NASCAR win and came back for a full-season Nationwide effort in 2012. Hornish got off to a fast start in the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona, backed it up with another strong effort in Phoenix and drove to victory in his third race of the season to give him one win, two top-five and three top-10 finishes in the season’s first three contests.
Hornish gave Mustang its first win of the season when he led four times for 114 laps in the 200-lap contest. The win gives Hornish a 19-point lead over Justin Algaier, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott in the Nationwide Series standings.
“It feels great to win here,” Hornish said. “I didn’t even realize it was the Sam’s Town 300 until this morning at the drivers’ meeting. I said: ‘That is a pretty good one for me to win. I already have my name on the trophy.’ We had a great car all day long. From about the third lap of practice, I knew we had a pretty good piece and made some small adjustments to it throughout practice and a little bit for the race, and the car was real good. I think the thing that really set us apart was we were able to put our car just about anywhere we wanted on the track and switch it up from one lap to the next. We took our time with a lot of things and the pit crew did a good job getting all the wheels tight and fuel in the car. When you have as good of a car as you do today you don’t have to win the race on pit road, you just have to make sure you don’t lose it there.
“You dream about having cars like this, and when you get one to victory lane, because we had a couple last year that were pretty darn good that didn’t get to victory lane, the fact that we did today means a lot to me.”
Hornish’s car was so dominant it reminded him of his days in the IZOD IndyCar Series when he was “Sam the Man” – as in the “man to beat.”
“It reminds me of some of my IndyCar days of having good cars and going out there,” Hornish said. “I think I used more energy celebrating than I did actually driving the car today. It felt good, and there was maybe one time I scared myself a little bit and thought, ‘We have 90 to go; we can take it easy and stretch it out.’ It is a great feeling to be able to do that.
“Roger has said many times he wants a third Cup team again, and we want to make sure we do things the right way. It is one thing at a time, and we want to get our Ford to victory lane first, and there is a difference with the Roush Yates – the Penske guys did a great job with engines the last couple of years and had really great reliability, but this takes it to the next little thing. They absorbed a lot of people from Penske so there were things brought over that we were doing. It is a great combination and shows what a businessman and person that Roger is. A lot of people questioned why you would go somewhere else after the success you had with Dodge, but he knew there was a way we could be better, and he wanted to jump full on to it and see if we could live up to what we should.”
Hornish’ new crew chief, Greg Erwin, was already a “Sam Fan” from his days in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Erwin knew about Hornish’s blazing speed and fearless attitude and believed that together they could accomplish some great things in the Nationwide Series this season.
“The truth of the matter is that you have a guy here that has won arguably one of the biggest races in the world and several championships in a series that is driven predominantly by engineering tactics and technology and things like that,” Erwin said. “I think I walked into this deal, and I understand and can appreciate and see all the things that go on at Penske Racing that in my heart show me that there is a level of perfection there that I don’t think you want to race against. If you really knew, and when you can get all the flags pointed in one direction, it really lets you know there is some horsepower behind you.
“As far as this guy is concerned, if you can do some of the things he has done in race cars and had the success he has, there is no doubt in my mind he can be a champion in this series. He just needs the pieces of the puzzle to fall together. This sport is all momentum. You guys see it. You cover it every week. You run good and run good and sometimes run good when you shouldn’t, and we call that momentum. To get that ball across the goal line today and finish with a win is awesome.”
While it was Hornish’s last restart that was decisive, it was actually the next-to-last restart when Hornish showed his true meddle as a race driver. Mired in third place, Hornish drove underneath Brian Vickers and Busch to blast back into the lead before a crash behind them brought out the final yellow flag of the race.
“That was a necessity today,” Hornish said of his bold move. “I want to make moves like that all the time, but there are times to make them and times not to. We knew at that point we had a really good car, and I told Greg during that yellow that we had an awesome car, and if we got clean air, we would show them what it was like. I don’t know what happened, but I think it was Kyle that was on the outside, I am not exactly sure. Whoever was on the outside with Vickers, they both spun their tires a little, and I had the perfect restart and was able to pull down and do exactly what we needed to do. I’ve had opportunities to do stuff like that, but when you do it for the lead, everyone notices it a lot more.”
When Hornish was in the IZOD IndyCar Series, he made success look easy with 19 victories in eight seasons including the Indy 500 and three series championships.
He discovered how hard it was to achieve success in NASCAR which is why he was so emotional when he won his first-ever NASCAR race at PIR in 2011 as he openly cried in Victory Lane.
“When I won at Phoenix a couple of years ago, I had a hard time celebrating because I didn’t feel like celebrating at that time because of the loss of Dan (Wheldon) at this racetrack,” Hornish said, referring to Wheldon’s fatal crash Oct. 16, 2011 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “That was something where there were a lot of questions in my mind as far as what I should be doing with the rest of my life and things like that. Also just knowing that it could be anybody and I couldn’t celebrate like I wanted to and I had to basically use my faith to be able to figure out what was the right thing for me.”
Hornish also showed emotion Saturday at Vegas because his NASCAR career has never been easy, forcing him to often wonder if he could succeed in stock car racing. He took over the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil ride midway through last season when A.J. Allmendinger failed a NASCAR drug test and was subsequently released by team owner Roger Penske. Hornish did well in that ride, but the team chose Joey Logano to take over the No. 22 beginning this season.
Hornish’s ride on Saturday reminded him of a happier time when he raced at Vegas for PDM Racing in 2000.
“With the troubles we had toward the end of the season last year – not troubles but when it was announced that I wasn’t going to be in the 22 Cup car, that was another hit,” Hornish said. “I got to the last race of the season at Miami, and my last crew chief told me, ‘If you ever get some confidence, I don’t think they will stop you.’ I have had some pretty hard hits to the ego, and I don’t think I am one that had a big ego in the first place, but to go through some of the things we have gone through in the past six years, today I remembered the first time I ever came out here to Las Vegas to race.
“I came back here with a couple-year-old car, and I was able to finish in the top three. That finish allowed the team to get a brand-new car to go to Indianapolis, and that race at Indy got me in the eyes of a couple people. It is one of those full-circle things.
“Maybe I will take this 13 years later and try to make the best I can of it. It is just wonderful. It is what racing is all about. You have ups and downs, and you have to remember a lot of times that it is just a game. It means a heck of a lot to us, and we want to win and want to win championships and races and all that good stuff, but it is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. I love doing it and have had a lot of fun and worked harder than I have in a little while, and a lot of that comes from Greg and the motivation.
“I have said that this is like a giant puzzle we are trying to put together, and we have to have multiple pieces to put it together. I feel like that was a good piece and made me want to be better. We have some really good people at Penske Racing with the guys that work on the cars and people like Jeremy Boone and Shawn Powell that work on the strength and mental part. I have worked on that as much as I have driving the race car.”
Hornish has proven not only does he have talent but also a large share of perseverance. And Saturday, his perseverance definitely paid off.