Right about the time Sam Hornish Jr. might have been starting to feel comfortable in a stock car this June, he got what Bill Weber described as “the full Pocono experience.” The veteran commentator was referring to the series of scrapes Hornish endured across the weekend, none of which appeared to validate his choice to leave open-wheel racing – and showed that while the driver’s taking baby steps forward in his progression as a Sprint Cup rookie, he’s still got a long ways to go in order to make his transition complete.
It all started when Hornish had to race in a backup car following a practice incident. Qualifying next to last with a lap that was half a second slower than the then-nearest driver was next on the agenda. The conventional wisdom is that a 40-something qualifying spot at Pocono is not going to get it done – track position is key on this 2.5-mile oval – and that was right on the money. Two tangles with Patrick Carpentier in the first 70 laps slowed the driver of the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge even further, but the coup de grace was administered on lap 130 when Hornish tangled with another ex-open wheeler, Dario Franchitti. This may very well have been a case of “wrong place, wrong time” but it doesn’t really matter when your car gets taken to the garage with the race still going on; and to make matters worse, Franchitti was angry with Hornish after the race, accusing the rookie of “not using his brakes… or his brains.”
What’s surprising is that 42nd-place finish in Long Pond, Pa., slowed the progress of what was three positive performances from the Defiance, Ohio native (shouldn’t every self-respecting racing driver come from a town named something like Defiance?) Following a very creditable – and unexpected – seventh-place finish in the All-Star Race, Hornish recorded a 13th in the Coke 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway – his highest ever Cup finish. He then backed up those runs with an 18th-place showing at the Monster Mile in Dover last week, avoiding the train wreck triggered by Elliott Sadler’s early spin. Heading to Pocono, a track that has arguably more road racing characteristics than those pertaining to an oval, Hornish was looking to keep building the positive momentum rolling. However, as many others have learned before, momentum can be a disloyal mistress – especially in Sprint Cup racing.
But that’s one of many changes this stock car rookie is still figuring out. Hornish came to NASCAR from the IndyCar Series, where he won three championships in seven years (2001, 2002 and 2006) – not to mention the 2006 Indianapolis 500. He’s become a legend in his own right; but after 19 wins in 116 races, the time had come for a fresh challenge. And what a challenging move it was; despite easing himself into the world of stocks, Hornish ran two Nationwide races in 2006 and another 11 in ’07 – yet only came up with a best showing of 15th. After DNQs in several Cup races towards the end of the season, there was some question as to whether Hornish should have been moved to Cup the following year.
But the 2008 season started so well for him, those murmurs briefly slowed to a whisper. The No. 77 car was strong right out of the blocks, qualifying 19th and running with the leaders for the early laps of the 50th Daytona 500. I was lucky enough to spend the first 30 or so laps of that race in front of Hornish’s pit stall that day, and learned it is undeniably fascinating to watch a pit crew work up close. The guys have periods of intense, frenetic activity interspersed with spells of relative inaction and studied insouciance; and on this night, they did their job and did it well. Hornish finished 15th in the Great American Race as the highest-finishing rookie. A solid bid for Rookie of the Year appeared to be well underway.
But the excitement at Daytona was quickly dampened in the face of consecutive terrible performances. In Fontana, Hornish plowed into Casey Mears’s vehicle in one of the more bizarre crashes of the season – following a weeper issue in which water caused even the best to lose control – and finished dead last. Things didn’t get much better in Vegas, either, when Hornish came home 41st after slapping the wall. And so it went; finishes of 25th, 28th, 29th, 32nd, 20th, 35th and 38th followed his effort in Nevada, enough to move Hornish out of the all-important Top 35 as the All-Star weekend approached this May.
As many of you will remember, that Top-35 slot was something that Hornish initially picked up because of the points switch with teammate and past champion Kurt Busch at the start of the 2008 season. Having run the final two Cup races of 2007, and with finishes (30th and 37th) that didn’t exactly trouble the leaders, the “comfort zone” acquired from the driver of the Blue Deuce was just the break Hornish needed as he made the difficult transition to full-time stock car racing. Rightly or wrongly, Penske and team took advantage of a loophole in the system, and made it work to its advantage. The fact that Busch could have objected – but did not – should not be forgotten, either; it speaks to his being a team player; like him or not.
Regardless of the circumstances, it’s a gift Hornish nearly squandered; but following the Dover race two weeks ago, he got himself back into the Top 35 – where he’ll hope to stay. Despite the subpar finish in Pocono, Hornish retains that all-important 35th-place standing; but he’s just 12 points ahead of Michael Waltrip and 140 ahead of fellow ex-open wheeler AJ Allmendinger.
Still, it’s enough to remain optimistic after a really bad weekend at Pocono.
“A third of the way through the season now, and we got ourselves back in the Top 35,” Hornish noted. “We’ve had some ups and downs. We’ve had some good runs. I feel better about things. We’re heading in the right direction.”
When you’ve proved yourself in one form of racing by the age of 26, the question of what comes next must be a tricky one. In some sense, Hornish’s defection from open wheel to NASCAR is hard to explain. He must have known he was going to struggle initially, and that it would take some time to run well. Perhaps he looked at Juan Pablo Montoya and thought, “if he can do it, so can I,” but regardless, what’s clear is that team owner Roger Penske views Hornish as a long term project, not some quick open-wheel reclamation fad.
“It is nice to see Sam display some of his racing talent in the biggest race in NASCAR,” Penske said following the 15th-place run at Daytona. The faith from the owner continues to be there four months later; but now, the consistent performances of running well week in week out needs to come to fruition.
So, it really has been a question of baby steps for Sam Hornish Jr. in his rookie season. Compounding these baby steps in performance terms are the baby steps of his newborn daughter, Addison Faith, who arrived on February 4th – just two weeks before the start of the season. The relentlessness of the schedule – especially compared with IndyCar – and not to mention all the usual issues associated with a new baby have made Hornish’s first year on circuit anything but boring.
But Penske is going to give Hornish the time and equipment to get the job done. This is not a one and done kinda deal, so for now at least, baby steps are just fine – so long as Hornish keeps learning with the hopes of duplicating the success he found in the open-wheel ranks.
But right now, that hope appears undaunted, even after a race like Sunday.