NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Side-By-Side: Should Sam Hornish Jr. Leave NASCAR?

Editor’s Note: The following is a special edition of Frontstretch‘s Side-By-Side. Occasionally throughout the season, two of your favorite Frontstretch writers will duke it out in a debate concerning one of NASCAR’s biggest stories. Don’t let us be the only ones to speak our minds, though… be sure to read both sides and let us know what you think about the situation in the comment section below!

Today’s Question: Recent rumors have Sam Hornish Jr. considering dropping his stock car career for a full-time move back to the IRL. After just eight races, is it too soon for Hornish to back away? Or is this the move he should have made all along?

Hornish On His Way to NASCAR Success

With the signing of David Stremme as Penske Racing’s test driver, speculation is running rampant that Hornish, the 2006 Indy Racing League champion and Sprint Cup rookie, is already preparing to throw in the towel on his stock car racing career. Here’s hoping that’s not the case; for Hornish has made a lot of progress even eight races into the season. No question, the talent is there for Hornish to make it in NASCAR if he continues to stay the course.

Hornish currently leads the Raybestos Rookie of the Year standings, and his performance statistics are a testament to why. Out of the vaunted open-wheel invasion, Hornish and his No. 77 team are the only ones that have managed to stay in the Top 35. His two top-20 finishes this season equal the combined total of top 20s that fellow rookies Aric Almirola, Patrick Carpentier, Dario Franchitti, Michael McDowell and Regan Smith have managed to produce. In addition, the freshman has only one DNF in his first eight races – a wreck at Fontana that wasn’t of his making.

Hornish has demonstrated considerable improvement in terms of qualifying. After failing to make the race at Martinsville last year, he qualified 26th in March. Hornish failed to qualify at Atlanta in 2007, but this year, he posted a 33rd-place starting position. Perhaps the most telling of Hornish’s improved qualifying ability, though, was his performance at Texas. After falling out of the Top 35 the week before at Martinsville, the Indiana native turned in a career-best qualifying attempt, clocking in 17th and then racing his team back into the Top 35 that Sunday. It’s also important to note that though Hornish has been locked into most of the races this season, his lap times at every racetrack would have gotten him into the field had he been outside the Top 35 sans Daytona. That’s not too shabby for a driver who missed six of eight Cup races last year.

On the track, Hornish’s performance has been better than expected as well. In only his second career restrictor-plate race (he had one Nationwide Series start at Daytona in 2007), Hornish scored a top 15 in the season’s biggest event, the Daytona 500. Hornish’s 20th-place run at Phoenix also demonstrated an ability to improve on tracks that he had seen before, as he had finished 30th in his Sprint Cup debut at the place last November. Even when his finishes have been further back in the field, Hornish has demonstrated an ability to log laps, vitally important for any rookie driver. Hornish’s recent run at Phoenix also had his crew chief, veteran Chris Carrier, raving about his rapid development in keeping up with the racetrack and adjusting driving style in order to save fuel.

Perhaps most telling of Hornish’s ability, though, is his lack of seat time in stock cars, both prior to and in 2008, compared to his other rookie compatriots. Hornish started this season with only 13 NASCAR starts to his credit, and has been able to run only one Nationwide race in 2008. Meanwhile, Smith came into the 2008 season with 102 Nationwide Series starts; McDowell ran a full ARCA Re/Max Series campaign; and Almirola had 27 Nationwide starts and a full Truck Series season to his credit. Franchitti also had minimal experience, but has the benefit of running all companion Nationwide Series races in 2008. The only rookie whose situation is comparable to Hornish’s is Carpentier – and Hornish has qualified for more races and has a better average finish than the driver of the No. 10.

Being given the daunting challenge of learning stock car racing on motorsports’ biggest stage is challenging – to put it lightly – but Hornish has kept his car on the track, logged laps and is learning how to race at the Sprint Cup level. His rookie season has not been pretty, but Hornish has proven on the track that he is the best of the rookie class of 2008. To see such a prospect give up on learning stock car racing this early – especially when he demonstrated the ability to succeed – would be both disappointing to his fans, and more importantly, of detriment to his reputation as a driver.

Stick with it, Sam. Don’t pull a Jacques Villeneuve. – Bryan Davis Keith

No Shame For Hornish To Get Out When The Getting’s Good

By no means do I want to rush Hornish back to Indy cars. If successful, his presence in NASCAR will lure a legion full of IRL aficionados to pay attention to a different kind of racing – perhaps more than any of the other open-wheel converts for 2008. With an Indy 500 victory and two IRL championships to his credit, Hornish has proven to be one heck of a racing talent; and, by all accounts, an even better guy.

With that said, a sudden departure from NASCAR, while shocking, may not be a bad thing for his career; and frankly, it’s not unprecedented.

Back in 1995, Steve Kinser – the amazing World of Outlaws champ – signed with Kenny Bernstein’s old No. 26 car to run a full season in Cup. A well-funded operation with sponsorship from Quaker State, Kinser was stepping into an operation that had both the tools and the equipment to be successful; with former driver Brett Bodine, the car had finished second in the inaugural Brickyard 400 the previous year.

But what Kinser didn’t have was the crossover talent. After crashing in the Daytona 500, he followed that up with two DNFs in the next month before abandoning the ride for good after the fifth race of the season. During that span, Kinser’s average finish was a paltry 35.2, a far cry from his days of dominating over in sprint cars. And that’s exactly what the veteran went back and did; by 2005, he had collected a record 20th WoO title, his sixth since his ill-fated NASCAR foray.

Kinser’s decision is just one example of what many superstars have done when attempting a similar crossover move. It’s not that his attempt wasn’t sincere; sometimes, you get bored with your current success in your field and you look for a new challenge elsewhere. But what many athletes don’t get is success isn’t a given; the best laid plans can quickly crash and burn with the difficulty of learning a completely different skillset.

And when that happens – if things don’t go well right off the bat – when do you cut and run? It’s just like Michael Jordan and his failed effort at baseball or Michael Andretti‘s struggles in Formula 1; you take your shot at unprecedented glory, but if you’re not prepared to deal with adversity, the temptation of being good day in, day out becomes too much to turn down.

And trust me, stock cars represent a challenging departure from the cars Hornish has driven before; if you have any doubts, just look at how much the rookie class of open wheelers has struggled this year. Eight races in, none of them have so much as a top-10 finish; simply qualifying for races has proven a victory in itself. Hornish has proven to be right amongst that crowd; his best finish is a 15th at Daytona, and even in that race his run was tarnished with some late-race contact that spun out Jimmie Johnson.

Since then, Hornish hasn’t finished on the lead lap, crashing twice in the process en route to seven finishes of 20th or worse. He’s barely hanging on to the Top 35 in owner points, and at Phoenix his difficulties on a mid-race restart almost caused a wreck that wiped out the front of the field. By no means has his performance been as bad as Kinser’s; but clearly, it’s been a tougher challenge than the Indiana native expected, with only marginal improvement since failing to qualify for more than half the Cup races he attempted in a limited debut last year.

However, Hornish has a similarity with Kinser in that he has an easy way out. Roger Penske has a third car in the IRL stable waiting, and Hornish could jump in it right now and be on top in a heartbeat. The Indy 500 looms, and he’d be an immediate contender in a race that’s suddenly captured additional prestige in the wake of the CART-IRL merger. Hornish’s complaint with open wheel was that the competition was getting stale; but with 26-28 entries expected at every IRL race this season, he’d have a whole new pack of challengers to contend with, putting the fun back in what had become a boring season of work.

That’s not to say Hornish won’t be as competitive in NASCAR someday; but who knows how long it’s going to take before he can taste the sweet success of victory lane? It’s most likely a year, maybe two before he’s even in position to win a race; and that’s if his sponsors and Penske are willing to give him that much time to develop. What if people lose their patience? Where will Hornish wind up then?

It’d be tough to lose one of racing’s bright young talents to the series he came from. But sometimes, you’re smart enough to know what the future holds; and if Hornish truly thinks it’s going to take too long for him to get up to speed based on his difficult start, it’s better to get out now than later.

Otherwise, the man’s just wasting time, and losing plenty of open-wheel trophies he could be collecting on his mantle, right here, right now. – Tom Bowles

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