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Hornish Trying To Keep Eye On Title While Chasing Another Indy Win

A win in the Indiana 250 on Saturday, July 27 could provide Sam Hornish Jr. with the solid foundation he needs to win the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship for Penske Racing. And while that remains the goal of three-time IZOD IndyCar Series champion and 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner Hornish, he realizes that if he must choose between victory or the points, he may go with what he feels in his heart rather than what he should do in his head.

“It would be awesome to win the Indiana 250, but at the end of the day we have to maintain what is important,” Hornish said after practice Friday at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I love racing here and want to win this race more than anything, and at the end of the day Saturday if I am in position with the opportunity, I will have to remind myself that we are here to race for points, but I don’t know if I will listen.”

Hornish is the Nationwide Series leader entering the second-ever Nationwide race at IMS, but his lead is just seven points over Regan Smith and eight over Austin Dillon. Elliott Sadler is 20 points behind Hornish, and Justin Allgaier is fifth, 22 out of the lead. The Indiana 250 starts at 4:30 p.m. Saturday.

As a former IndyCar driver, Hornish knows how to win championships – he won back-to-back IndyCar titles in 2001 and 2002 and gave team owner Roger Penske his only IZOD IndyCar Series championship in 2006.

When Hornish made the jump to NASCAR in 2008, he went straight to Cup and struggled. He was out of the series after 2010, ran a limited Nationwide Series schedule in 2011 and contended for the championship last year before Ricky Stenhouse Jr. won the title.

Hornish has been solid all season with one win, seven top-five and 14 top-10 finishes in 18 starts. He has the confidence level that he can score a NASCAR championship.

“We have shown how strong we have been, and there have been a lot of races this year where we were the only competition for the 22 (Joey Logano) and 54 (Kyle Busch), so I think that shows that we are very deserving of winning the championship,” Hornish said. “We have run extremely well. Without a couple issues that have put us in the back or a piece of debris blow our oil pump up, we would be somewhere around 50, 60 points ahead. Those are things everybody fights from time to time.”

When Hornish was just 5 years old, he attended the 1985 Indianapolis 500 and sat in the first turn with his father, “Big Sam.” Although he was just a youngster, he has vivid recollections of Danny Sullivan’s famous “spin and win” when the eventual winner of the race spun out in the first turn attempting to pass race leader Mario Andretti, did a complete spin at full speed and kept the car off the wall.

Hornish had some memorable moments at IMS as a driver. The greatest of all was his race-winning pass over leader Marco Andretti just a few hundred yards before the checkered flag on the final lap in 2006.

Hornish competed in the Brickyard 400 from 2008-10 and in 2012, with his best finish 16th last year.

In the inaugural Indiana 250 last year, Hornish contended for the victory. But Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski won the race just ahead of Hornish to give team owner Roger Penske his first NASCAR victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Penske is the all-time winningest team owner in Indianapolis 500 history with 15 wins.

Hornish is set to finish one position higher in Saturday’s race.

“I came just short of winning last year and having the opportunity to be the inaugural race winner,” Hornish said. “We had a 1-2 finish for Penske Racing, which was the same as last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway, and I was on the short end of that stick. It was a good weekend for the team and to be able to take over the points lead is good.

“A lot of people asked me if I was more excited about going to Indianapolis or having the points lead. It is about the same for me. I am excited about both opportunities. I am looking forward to the race starting. Last year we weren’t very good in practice and qualified like 14th but then had a good solid day and raced hard, and I was happy with where we ended up from where we started out. It seems we are back at that again this year. We aren’t quite where we need to be for where the car needs to be. We have some work to do overnight, but I have a lot of faith in the guys that they will do a good job.

“As much as I want to win here and would love to collect the bonus for Nationwide, the thing we need to continue to maintain and focus on is the fact that we are trying to win a championship this year. Race wins are great, but at the end of the day, we have to be smart and do all the things necessary to give ourselves the best opportunity to win the championship.”

Hornish led 56 laps last Sunday at Chicagoland but finished second to first-year Penske Racing driver Logano. Although it was another missed opportunity at victory, Hornish understands the big picture in a points championship.

“I think we have had a good amount of confidence this year -- sometimes maybe a little overconfident in what we are able to do, but I feel really good about the way we ran last weekend,” Hornish said. “Even when we were behind in the points, people asked me if I was worried. But the way we were running, I didn’t think there was any reason we wouldn’t regain the points lead at some point as long as we didn’t have too much bad luck along the way.

“We’ve had good race cars, and the guys are working hard. We feel there are still adjustments we can make to make our team better, but we aren’t looking at it like we need a 10-percent gain in one spot. It is the fine-tuning of a percent here and there. We need a little better pit stops, better strategy, a little better driver feedback. It is all just a bunch of little things.”

Getting all of those things right is the primary goal at Indianapolis in what Hornish believes is a pivotal race in the championship because IMS is unlike any other racetrack in the Nationwide Series.

“This is a wild-card race for us in a lot of ways,” he said. “We don’t run any other tracks that really overlap with what we are going to experience here. If we went to Pocono, we would have something similar, but this is the only track we run that is in this ballpark. It does make it difficult to figure out where we need to be for Indianapolis. We only get the two practice sessions Friday morning that were done by 11:30, and we started on the track at 8:30 and we were very free. As soon as the sun peeked up over the grandstands, we ended up being tight. That shows you how quick things can change here.

“We do have a lot of momentum going and feel great about what we are doing, but this is one of those weekends we aren’t really sure where we were going to be on the competitive scale, and we have shown that we have a little bit of work to do yet.”

Hornish has a unique personality because he is quietly confident of his ability as a race car driver but very humble. He will never be accused of being boastful but recalls one time when he was arriving for the Indianapolis 500 that he wanted to tell one of the “Yellow Shirt” IMS Safety Patrol members who he was.

“I remember one time I came here, maybe in 2003 and I had driven down from Ohio and had all my stuff in the car and had left my hard card in my bag in the back,” Hornish said. “I got down here to the tunnel, and it wasn’t like it was even Race Day weekend, it was well before the ‘500’ started, and I came out of the tunnel, and the guy was like, ‘I need to see your hard card.’ I told him it was in my suitcase and he wasn’t going to let me through without photo identification.

“I wanted to be a smart-ass and tell him to walk out the tunnel and look up because I was the previous series champion for the year and they had a thing that was 30-foot tall by 30-foot wide, and I ended up having to go get my hard card.

“Thursday I brought some parts down for the team because we tested in Toledo earlier in the week. I brought some stuff so they didn’t have to take it on their commercial flight. I drove up to the tunnel and told them my pass was in my motor home, which I lied because it wasn’t and I knew I still had to go out there but I was trying to get the stuff to the guys before it closed. I pulled right up into where the haulers were parked at so we could unload it but they know me now.

“I shouldn’t maybe say that because they will think I am trying to take advantage of them, but there are a lot of Yellow Shirts glad to see me and a lot of fans that have pictures for me to sign. I signed a group of pictures for a guy, everything from my rookie race here and qualifying pictures and like four or five from the day I won. After that whole deal was over yesterday, I went to get my pass in the office building over there and one of my daughters asked if my picture was up around here. I told her yes, and I took them to the Museum and showed them my face on the trophy and some of the stuff up there. They got a kick out of that.

“I ranked second to Bob Sweikert’s pink No. 6 car that he ran in 1955, though. Having two little girls, they like pink.”

For Hornish, it doesn’t matter if the race is the Indianapolis 500 or the NASCAR Nationwide Series Indiana 250 – a win at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a big deal to the driver from Defiance, Ohio, no matter what kind of car he is racing.

“It could compare real good,” Hornish said. “If they had a foot race around the place, anyone would want to win it. That is why I think you always see how seriously the Cup guys take it and Nationwide and everybody. Everybody wants to come to Indianapolis.

“Anyone that tells you they didn’t dream of racing at Indianapolis growing up, no matter what they are in now as far as a racing forum, they either didn’t know about the Indy 500 because they lived under a rock or they are lying to you. Look at what it means to a guy like Tony Stewart. Look at what Kurt Busch did this year giving himself the opportunity to come test a (Indy) car and see if it is something he wants to do.

“Whatever your pinnacle is, running at Indianapolis is definitely right up there for everybody.

“I know how awesome it is to be able to win here. A lot of people, until you get that feeling of kissing the bricks, it is a tough thing for you to be able to explain to anybody.”

Competing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway provides a driver with the most unique sense of anticipating combined with incredible pressure. Mistakes are magnified at the 2.5-mile oval, but the rewards are immeasurable.

“There will always be pressure of coming here no matter what I race,” Hornish said. “It is a thrilling feeling to be able to come here to race, but it does make me a little bit nervous sometimes because I know that given the opportunity to win or to think about finishing second and padding the points lead, I might not make the right decision when it comes down to it tomorrow if I get myself in position to win this race.

“I don’t know how many of you remember the final lap of the ‘500’ last year and everybody thought (Takuma) Sato run such a good race and then threw it away at the end. That is exactly what I would have done given the opportunity. You have to drive it in there and try. Who cares if you are second place? You don’t get your picture on the trophy or a bonus for doing that. He gave it his all and crashed out trying to do it, but that is what it is all about.”

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