Hornish finding his footing on NASCAR circuitWritten by Dave Woolford | | firstname.lastname@example.org
There’s been a recent plethora of firsts in the racing life of Sam Hornish Jr., but they’ve been somewhat overlooked because none include first place.
But first things first.
The Defiance native, who resides in Napoleon, has been anything but second rate over the past five races in his second year on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit. He has had two top 10 finishes in the past four races, a career-best sixth at Richmond a few weeks ago and a ninth at Phoenix on April 18.
Last season, Hornish had no top 10 finishes. His best result was 13th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, which will be the scene of the Sprint Cup All-Star race.
Recently, Hornish was 30th in the Sprint Cup point standings, his highest ranking over the past two seasons.
He led his first laps of the season at Talladega, showing the way for a total of three laps. He qualified fourth in two of his past four races, including Darlington and Talladega. It was the first time Hornish had qualified as high as fourth during the past two seasons. His best previous start was seventh on two occasions last year.
Hornish’s average starting position over the first six races was 28.3. During the past five races it has been 16.6. His average finish over the first six races was 28.83, but that dipped to 19.2, despite a spin and crash at Darlington on May 9. That relegated him to a 30th place finish and dropped him to 31st in the points.
But enough with the stats already.
Sam, what’s been the reason for the pronounced improvement? Did you discover that your floor mat somehow got wedged under the accelerator or maybe a crew member found a small rodent lodged in the intake manifold? Come on, Sam. Be honest.
“It hasn’t been any one thing,” Hornish said following a recent test session at Daytona. “I have a lot more experience, the crew has a lot more experience and we’re working a lot better together. I feel more comfortable and I feel better about what the car wants and that makes me and everything else better.
“I feel I’ve stepped up, and my team and everyone else in the organization has stepped up also. The big thing is knowing what is needed and what I can do to make myself better and the team better after a year of learning. All three Penske racing teams are working better together and we’re putting pressure on each other and trying to get closer on car setups every week.”
Sam’s teammate, Kurt Busch, sneaked into first place in the point standings for a week recently, sort of coming out of nowhere to become one of the most inconspicuous point leaders ever.
The curves at every race track have their own idiosyncrasies, but the most difficult has been the learning curve for Hornish, the three-time IndyCar Series champion. Going from the top dog in open-wheel competition to too many dog-day afternoons and nights in stock-car racing has humbled Hornish, but not to the point where he questions his decision about switching, especially in light of his recent, moderate success.
Consider that most of his compatriots, who tried to make the same transition from the nimble, sophisticated Indy cars to the inelegant, unwieldy, sometimes repugnant stock cars, by comparison, required much more retooling of their driving skills than anticipated. Add large amounts of supplementary labor-intensive competition and it was exit stage left, flat out, for most.
“I had a good idea of what it was going to be like,” Hornish admitted after his first top 10 finish at Phoenix. “Did I think it would take me a year and eight races to get a top 10? Probably not. But I didn’t think we would be winning at this time, either, unless it was a fuel-mileage race or by being in the right place at the right time when everyone else pitted and we were still the car that was out on the course.
“I knew how hard it was going to be. I wanted to challenge myself. I told myself this could be the biggest mistake I ever make — because I could go and be very comfortable in Indy cars for the rest of my career. But I had a taste of this, and wanted more.”
Well then, Sam, when can we look forward to that first Sprint Cup victory?
“That’s still a little ways down the road. First, you have to get in the top 20s in points, then the top 10s before you can think about winning. There are times when you can luck into a victory, but it will probably be another 15 or 20 races before I can say we have the ability to win a particular race.
“A good driver has to have confidence and I’m a bit more confident in that I’m learning. I can definitely say I’m having more fun.”