Sam Hornish Jr. has had an up and down season in his first year of Sprint Cup competition driving the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge. One week, he’s impressing us with a top-20 finish at a track like Dover; the next, he can’t get out of his own way – or away from the wall – at Pocono. But such is life for a rookie in the Cup Series these days; at least Hornish continues to take his lumps in stride as he goes through the adjustment period with his new, third team at Penske Racing.
So, how does Hornish assess his season to this point? Which race does he find more challenging – Daytona or Indy? And how old is too old to race? Find out the answers to these questions and more as Hornish joins us for this week’s edition of Beyond the Cockpit.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch: What factors went into your decision to come over to NASCAR from the IRL last year? Did you speak to Juan Pablo Montoya or AJ Allmendinger about their transfer from their respective open-wheel series?
Sam Hornish Jr.: Actually, we had started it in 2006. I had done a lot of testing before we ever knew Juan was going to be running, or AJ, or any of those guys. We started testing so at the end of the season, when it got down to the last few races, we would be ready. We decided in February of that year and, as we got closer (to the end of the season), we found that Juan was going to come over and then some other guys. But the decision to do it full-time really came at the end of last season. I had an opportunity to see how difficult it was; at the end of ’06 and ’07, we ran both stock cars and Indy cars. But NASCAR was something I wanted to try, and I thought that I could really challenge myself in this series. That’s why I wanted to do it.
Lumbis: How is the challenge so far?
Hornish: It could be going a lot better. We’ve had some right-front tire issues this year, but I feel like we’re getting better and better every time we go out there. I’m having a lot of fun, and feel like I’m learning new stuff all the time – I think we’re getting better and better.
Lumbis: Your All-Star weekend performance seems to have given you and your team a boost, as you snagged two strong top-20 finishes after that. Do you think those finishes are a result of your team starting to gel; or can a good run, such as the Sprint Cup Showdown, have that much of a positive impact on a team?
Hornish: Before the All-Star weekend, we got to go and do our first two-day test since the season started. So, we really didn’t have a lot of opportunities to go out and test some of the things that we found since we don’t want to go to a race weekend with it on and not have it be right. At Richmond, I think we started seeing a turnaround a little bit. At Darlington, we qualified well, but had a right-front tire blow out after running over a piece of debris, and were in the wall on lap 12. I think we could’ve been coming off the strength of four top 20s in a row if we didn’t have the flat tire at Darlington. The All-Star weekend did give us a lot of confidence, though, and makes us feel good. A lot of things just came together.
Lumbis: Do you think you could’ve won the Showdown?
I think I could’ve won the Showdown, but there was no reason to push the issue. I think if I hadn’t got in the wall early on in the All-Star Race, we might have had a chance to be in the top three and maybe give Kasey Kahne a run at the end. He was quick when he needed to be, though. They did a lot better job of staying ahead of the track than some of the other guys did.
Lumbis: You were certainly coming on strong at the end as well.
Hornish: Yeah, we needed it to be 50 lap runs instead of 25, but it made us feel good going into the 600 weekend because we knew we were going to have a lot of long runs there. It was a good couple of weeks for us.
Lumbis: You had a good experience at this year’s Daytona 500, coming home with a good finish – and your teammate won. If you were to win the Daytona 500, how would you rank that against your Indy 500 victory?
Hornish: I think it would be pretty big just because I know how difficult it is. [Daytona] is very difficult because not only do you have to have a good car but you [also need] good friends and teammates to push you. So, there are a lot of things that can keep you from winning it [Daytona 500] that are outside of your own [control]. Also, to win it would mean that I was one of only three people to have won the Indy 500 and the Daytona 500. To be able to put your name beside the likes of Foyt and Andretti would make it very special, too. So, there are a lot of reasons why Daytona would be one of the biggest victories of my career if I could ever achieve that.
Lumbis: You’ll also be in the same category as Roger Penske who won both as a car owner.
Hornish: I would’ve liked to be able to give him his first 500 win, but I was really glad Ryan Newman was able to do that. I think going back there next year, we’ll have the yellow stripe off the rear bumper, which always helps when people are getting ready to push. Even going to Talladega this year, I noticed that people were a lot more willing to work with me than they were at Daytona. So next year, hopefully we’ll have a really good chance of running up front, and hopefully we’ll get a top-five finish out of it.
Lumbis: You are a big motorcycle enthusiast. Would you ever consider racing them at some point in your career?
Hornish: Probably not. I love motorcycles and anything with two wheels on it. I think I’m a little too old to be doing anything like that. If you look at the guys who are fast and typically do well at it, they’re young and their bodies heal a lot quicker. By the time I’m ready to do something other than this, I’ll be way too old for that.
Lumbis: You have mentioned that your dad has been your greatest influence. Can you elaborate?
Hornish: My dad is probably the biggest race fan that I know. He’ll go just about anywhere and watch any kind of racing. I was lucky that he wanted to spend a whole bunch of time with me and a whole bunch of money on me early on when I was racing go-karts. He was my mechanic the whole time, and gave me a direction to head in as far as what kind of racing we should do. He has always been there to support me, too. It’s a close race between him and my mom, but I guess I picked him.