The Frontstretch: Shattering NASCAR's Open-Wheel Curse... With A Second Chance by Brett Poirier -- Tuesday March 19, 2013

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Shattering NASCAR's Open-Wheel Curse... With A Second Chance

Brett Poirier · Tuesday March 19, 2013

 

One driver said a derogatory term and was suspended, another was fined for a slight criticism of his car, and 28 fans were injured when pieces of a car shot through and over the fence at Daytona.

Sam Hornish Jr. isn’t supposed to be running this well in NASCAR. But he is.

There have been plenty of negative stories in the opening weeks of the 2013 NASCAR season. There also have been a few positive stories. Look no further than the Nationwide Series point leader.

Sam Hornish Jr.’s story should be nothing more than a cautionary tale at this point. When Hornish Jr. — a three time IndyCar Series champion, Indy 500 champion and 19-time race winner — decided to leave open-wheel racing, it was like when Michael Jordan left the Chicago Bulls to play baseball.

Hornish Jr. struck out in the minor leagues the same way Jordan did, too. The only difference was that after Sam initially struggled, he was quickly called to the majors — Sprint Cup — where his flaws were magnified.

He could have bolted back to what was safe, much like Jordan did. Sam was the face of a still young Indy Racing League — it’s namesake at the time. He could’ve climbed back in the cockpit of his No. 6 with Penske Racing and won more Indy 500s, more championships and posted untouchable numbers in that series. He could’ve been the greatest thing to happen to open-wheel racing since…Danica Patrick.

Let’s forget the time in NASCAR ever happened. Right, Dario Franchitti?

But Hornish Jr. took the tougher road, and chose to stay in NASCAR where it seemed he didn’t belong. He finished in the top-five twice in three full years of Cup racing from 2008-2010, wrecked more cars than a teenage girl texting, and was out on his butt for the 2011 season after the No. 77 Cup team closed up shop.

Smart move Sam.

However, that still wasn’t enough to get rid of him, or to shake Roger Penske’s belief in him. Drivers who sit on the sidelines are quickly forgotten in NASCAR. Just ask Ward Burton, and he was a Daytona 500 winner, a contender in the Cup Series.

Oh yeah, but Hornish Jr. did have that second-place finish in the All-Star showdown that one year. Sign him up. You’d expect someone in Sam’s position to go around the garage begging to start and park some hunk of junk just to stay relevant, just to remain a blip in the mind of car owners and sponsors.

He did the opposite and stayed loyal to Penske, and Penske stayed loyal to him. When sponsors leave and teams fold, drivers are often fed lines about coming back to the organization if the money comes in. David Ragan heard it from Roush Fenway and Casey Mears did from Richard Childress Racing. But when does that storybook ending ever happen? How often does a driver really get a second chance?

Hornish Jr. got his at the start of 2012 after Penske found enough funding for a full Nationwide campaign. It wasn’t only a second chance to get it right for Hornish Jr., but also for Penske Racing. They threw Hornish Jr. to the wolves to start his career in stock cars, instead of having him naturally rise through the ranks like most drivers do today.

It proved to be a smart move. Hornish Jr. wasn’t stellar in his first Nationwide season, but he stayed in the championship battle for most of the year and finished a respectable fourth.

He might have earned even more respect on the Cup side. It turns out, racing in the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge was boring A.J. Allmendinger to the point where he needed Adderall just to pay attention. After Allmendinger’s ensuing suspension, Hornish Jr. ran the final 20 races of the Cup season. His results weren’t groundbreaking, but he appeared as if he belonged the second time around. He performed well enough that some were skeptical about whether bringing in the kid named “Sliced Bread” — Joey Logano — was worth replacing Hornish Jr.

That brings us to 2013. Hornish Jr. has started the Nationwide season with finishes of second, seventh, first and fourth — and the seventh was with a wrecked car. Crew chief Greg Erwin gave Hornish Jr. a setup that was untouchable at Las Vegas.

Erwin is a comeback story himself. After spending three years as crew chief to Greg Biffle, Erwin was the shown the door at Roush Fenway halfway through the 2011 season. Erwin bounced back with a mid-level team, landing a job on Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43. In a year, he was fired to make room for Denny Hamlin’s former crew chief Mike Ford.

That would have been the end of the road for most crew chiefs, but Penske saw something in Erwin and hired him to lead the No. 12 Nationwide team and Hornish Jr. this season. What a match, two people hungry to prove they belong in NASCAR, even after others decided they didn’t.

Hornish Jr. and Erwin are the boxers who had their faces beaten in, in the opening rounds. Both eventually hit the canvas. But they got back up again, and landed a stiff uppercut to the jaw of their opponents. It’s difficult not to root for them.

Hornish Jr. should be nothing more to stock cars than Franchitti or Jacque Villeneuve at this point — a cautionary tale about how even the best open-wheel drivers can’t make it in NASCAR.

But, he’s not. Hornish Jr. is proving he belongs, and it might be the best story so far in 2013.

Contact Brett Poirier

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