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Hornish On Smoother Stock Car Path In Return To Brickyard

When the NASCAR Nationwide Series hits the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural Indiana 250 on Saturday, July 28, there will be one former Indianapolis 500 winner in the field.

Sam Hornish Jr. returns to the site of his greatest accomplishment, as the Penske Racing driver is behind the wheel of the No. 12 Dodge. Hornish won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion when he passed race leader Marco Andretti just a few hundred yards before the checkered flag. It was the first time in the history of the Indianapolis 500 that the race-winning pass was made on the last lap. That feat was equaled in 2011 when Dan Wheldon passed the crippled car driven by race leader J.R. Hildebrand after it smacked the fourth-turn wall heading to the checkered flag.

This won’t be the first time three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion Hornish has competed in a stock car at the Brickyard. Hornish left INDYCAR after the 2007 season and competed in Sprint Cup from 2008-10, including three races at IMS. He started 38th and finished 21st in the 2008 Brickyard 400 and followed that with a 15th-place finish in 2009 and 25th in 2010.

After running a partial Nationwide Series schedule in 2011, Hornish is competing for the championship in that series in 2012 and entered the Chicagoland race weekend fourth in the standings, with four top-five finishes and 10 top-10s in 17 Nationwide starts. He also competed in one planned NASCAR Sprint Cup start at Kansas in April, when he started 20th and finished 19th, and was an emergency fill-in driver when A.J. Allmendinger was suspended at Daytona and New Hampshire.

Allmendinger’s status for the Crown Royal Presents the Curtiss Shaver 400 at the Brickyard powered by remains uncertain pending results of an additional drug test that will be conducted July 24. If Allmendinger is unable to compete at Indianapolis, Hornish may be back in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge for the Sprint Cup race at the Brickyard.

But Hornish definitely will be in the field for the first-ever Nationwide race at IMS and brought up an interesting contrast to how the long 2.5-mile Speedway looks to a driver in a stock car compared to an Indy car.

John Andretti, who competed in both the 1994 Indianapolis 500 and the inaugural Brickyard 400 that same year, said it looked like two different racetracks depending on which car he was driving.

“I think when you look at John Andretti, when he was running Indy cars compared to when I ran Indy cars, they ran at Nazareth and Michigan and Milwaukee and Indianapolis – fairly flat tracks compared to Daytona, Talladega, Texas, Atlanta and Charlotte,” Hornish said. “I think generally every time I go back I go to Texas now and think ‘Where did all the banking go?’ because you are so used to it. I think the first time I did go to Indy in a stock car for whatever reason it seemed like the straightaways were a lot shorter. You would think they would be shorter in an Indy car because you were going faster, but in a stock car, because of the amount of brake you have to put in the car and how the car feels in the corner, it’s different. In a stock car you come off of Turn 4 and you are figuring how to get set up for Turn 1 again. It doesn’t feel any flatter; it feels like the straightaways are shorter.”

Hornish realizes because of the nature of the four-cornered Indianapolis Motor Speedway there are limited passing opportunities in a stock car, so he is forced to take a technical approach to how to race on the difficult track.

“It’s a lot about momentum, too, and judging things the right way,” Hornish said. “The Indy cars were somewhat like that, as well. If you make an ill-timed attempt to pass, you are going to get passed by somebody. It’s another place like Pocono, where you have to be sure you are going to get it done or you won’t get back in line.”

After his first attempt at the Sprint Cup Series did not go as he had hoped, Hornish was willing to take a step back to the Nationwide Series to improve his skills in the stock car. That also gave him the opportunity to branch out to a television career as the driver analyst on the “Speed Report” on SPEED Channel.

When NASCAR announced it was suspending Allmendinger, Hornish was in the SPEED studios in Charlotte, N.C., when the team made the call to get him to Daytona for that night’s Coke Zero 400.

“Sam is the guy we wanted right away,” team owner Roger Penske said. “Unfortunately, he was doing a TV thing while we were trying to get him on the phone. We got a hold of him and flew him in right on time. He missed one pace lap, but he did a good job and unfortunately lost a tire early on. We had both our cars finish, which was better than a lot of guys at Daytona.”

Hornish already has told the team that he is willing to take over the ride for as long as necessary.

“Hypothetically, I told Roger on Sunday (after Daytona), before we knew what anything else would hold, that I appreciated the opportunity to go down there and run the car on Saturday night, and if they needed me to do it again, I would be more than happy to do it,” Hornish said. “I don’t have a whole lot of qualms with being able to run both series. I know it would be a little more trying as far as my schedule. We’ve been the development team the past year and a half. I did a lot of the EFI (electronic fuel injection) testing for the Cup cars. A lot of what we have been doing is sponsor development bringing a few new sponsors in and helping them understand the sport. We want to make sure we take care of them because we made commitments to them and make sure they are potential sponsors we could take Cup racing some season, and that is the end game we hope with them.

“But first things first: We have to work on this Nationwide Series championship.”

For now, Hornish is likely to be the replacement if Allmendinger is suspended indefinitely.

“Our main focus is running the entire Nationwide schedule,” Hornish said. “If you look back to the end of last season, my reasoning to why I wasn’t considered to run the 22 car is because we wanted to focus on our commitment to the Alliance Truck Parts and the to the Worth Group to run for the Nationwide championship for those two sponsors. At this point, I’m helping out by filling in. We’re going to do everything to the best of our abilities to not take anything away from our Nationwide car while doing the best we can on the Cup side as well to take care of Shell/Pennzoil.

“It’s a little bit of a trying time because there still are not a lot of answers. The hardest part for me right now is answering questions because I don’t know anything more than you guys know about it.”

Hornish is the perfect replacement for Allmendinger, for a number of reasons. By stepping away from the Cup series and focusing his efforts on a Nationwide career, he has made tremendous improvement. Hornish’s victory in the Nationwide race last November at Phoenix International Raceway was his first career NASCAR victory. He remains a viable contender for this year’s Nationwide title.

Also, Hornish enjoyed success with the No. 22 car sponsor when Pennzoil was his sponsor at Panther Racing when he won the IndyCar Series title in 2001 and 2002. He also drove for Panther in 2003 before leaving at the end of the season to join Team Penske’s IndyCar operation, where he won the 2006 Indy 500 and the 2006 IndyCar Series title.

“I had the opportunity to work with them for a couple years at Panther Racing,” Hornish said of Shell/Pennzoil. “We had a pretty good run together. The way I look at it though is it’s obviously not the circumstances that I would have liked the opportunity to run in the 22. With sponsors thinning out and seats that are available at some point in time, you take what you can get and be thankful for what you get. There isn’t an abundance to plop down in Cup right now without bringing the money with you.”

Hornish also believes he is much better prepared for the Cup series now than he was when he made the jump straight from IndyCar to Cup in 2008 without the benefit of learning the trade in Nationwide.

“I would like to say I’m way better prepared, but I talked earlier this year about my mentality and how I approach the races,” Hornish said. “Sometimes when you are in it, you are paddling to keep your head above water. When you get an opportunity to take a step back and see all the things that maybe you are missing and can’t see because you are too into it at the time, sometimes that is when you learn things.

“There are two ways to learn things – either someone takes you under their wing and teaches you all of them or you learn it yourself but get the opportunity to focus on it from the outside a little bit.

“I even look at A.J. when he first came to the Cup series. Red Bull took him out for a couple races and put Mike Skinner in. He still came to the track and listened in on the radio. When he came back, it was a night-and-day difference. He was able to focus on how to get better rather than keep his head above water. Then he got the ride with Petty and went from having trouble to qualify for races to running in the top 10.”

Hornish is willing to run both Nationwide and Cup for the remainder of the 2012 season and would welcome the extra seat time.

“There are times in the past I wish I had been in the car on Saturday to know what I needed for Sunday,” Hornish said. “I don’t think it is too bad to have the extra time. I don’t want to say anything out of turn, but this is the first year Carl Edwards has not run all of the Saturday races he has in the past. He is not having a bad year but says he is not doing as well as he wishes he were doing.”

Many drivers in Hornish’s position would have balked at taking a step down from Cup to Nationwide, but one of Hornish’s greatest character traits is his humility. He is not a driver of ego and is not afraid to admit that sometimes an athlete has to step back in order to move forward.

“Without a doubt, and he will tell you the last year or so has been productive for him to watch the Cup series from afar after having experienced it,” Team Penske President Tim Cindric said. “It’s like when you are in school, you are sometimes not sure what you are learning until you step away and practice it and then come back.”

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