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2008 Driver Review: Sam Hornish Jr.

2008 Ride: No. 77 Penske Racing Dodge
2008 Sponsors: Mobil 1, Penske Truck Rental
2008 Owner: Roger Penske
2008 Crew Chief: Chris Carrier (Feb. – Aug.), Travis Geisler (Aug. – Nov.)

Stats: 34 races, 0 wins, 0 top fives, 0 top 10s, 2 DNQs, 35th in points
Best Finish: 13th – Charlotte (May)

High Point: As was the case with the Penske Racing organization as a whole, Sam Hornish Jr. enjoyed the high point of his rookie campaign in stock cars during the season-opening Daytona 500. Hornish Jr., riding the wave as part of the vaunted “open-wheel invasion,” led the charge that day, racing in the lead draft for the entirety of the 500-mile race while bringing his car home in 15th spot – by far the best of the converts. His finish also allowed all three Penske Dodges to finish in the top 15 of the Great American Race; ironically, it was the only time all three would do that all season.

Low Point: After falling outside of the Top 35 in owner points for the second time in 2008, Hornish and the No. 77 group failed to qualify for the season’s final restrictor-plate race at Talladega. Adding insult to injury, their first DNQ of the season was for an event in which Kenny Wallace guided the No. 00 Toyota – with whom Hornish’s car was competing with for a Top-35 slot – to a 12th-place finish. That caused a 101-owner point swing which proved the final nail in the No. 77 team’s coffin, one that will require them to race their way into the 2009 Daytona 500 unless several others close up shop in the offseason.

In the 34 races that Hornish did qualify for, his low point came in the spring race at Pocono. Though those with road-course experience typically have taken well to the 2.5-mile Pennsylvania “roval,” the rookie proved to be in completely over his head. By day’s end, he had been involved in three-plus incidents on track and finished in the 42nd position, some 70 laps off the pace. Hornish’s performance that Sunday was easily comparable to David Ragan‘s oft-maligned “dart without feathers” debut at Martinsville in 2006.

Summary: After a dismal partial schedule in 2007 that saw Hornish qualify for only two Cup races in eight attempts, the IRL transplant shocked the NASCAR community with a top 15 in the Daytona 500. That brief glimmer of hope was short-lived, though, as the next week at Fontana Hornish completed only 20 laps before slamming into Casey Mears, flipping the No. 5 car on its side. Hornish had a couple of promising runs throughout the spring, including back-to-back top 20s at Charlotte and Dover, but more often than not was involved in on-track incidents – be it with other drivers or on his own. Though Hornish qualified well for much of the season, his lack of results under green led the team to fall outside the Top 35 in owner points late in the summer. Hornish would fail to qualify for two of the season’s final seven races, leaving he and his No. 77 team on the outside looking in on the 2009 Daytona 500 field.

As for Hornish’s progress as a rookie at stock car’s highest level, it’s hard to figure out too much from a 2008 season spent in both Cup and some Nationwide events. The fact that Hornish scored top 15s in both the Daytona 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 can’t be overlooked – but neither can Hornish’s seeming inability to keep his Dodges off the wall. A basic look at the overall numbers tells a troubling story: finishing 35th in Cup driver points with four DNFs, two DNQs and zero top-10 finishes (and only eight lead-lap finishes) is, rookie or not, a dreary stat sheet.

Hornish’s 2008 campaign was marred with inconsistency, and a midsummer crew chief change to former driver Travis Geisler did nothing to improve the competitiveness of the No. 77 team. When the season concluded at Homestead (or in the case of Hornish, at Phoenix) the Indiana native failed not only to score Rookie of the Year honors, but to prove to his fans and fellow competitors alike that he was and is truly ready to be competing on stock car racing’s biggest stage. Between disappointments galore on the racetrack, the struggles of Penske Racing with the CoT and the off-track tumult that resulted from Ryan Newman‘s announced defection to Stewart-Haas Racing, 2008 was a rougher year for Hornish than most Sprint Cup rookies have to endure.

Team Ranking: Hornish was a greenhorn stock car driver driving for a newly formed team in 2008. Because of that, there is no doubt that the No. 77 was the third-tier car in the Penske Racing stable, and its performance on the racetrack was truly indicative of a new team on the circuit. The progress of both Hornish and his crew, however, was hindered by Penske Racing’s season-long struggles to get a hold of the CoT on any racetrack outside of the superspeedways. An inexperienced driver, a new team and an organization as a whole with nothing competitive to pull from each other left Hornish struggling to simply keep pace with Penske Racing’s other two horses.

Off-Track News: Though there have consistently been rumors floating that Hornish would return to the IRL in 2009 following his struggles in NASCAR, both Penske Racing and Hornish have consistently affirmed their commitment to the No. 77 car and the 2009 Cup Series campaign. Primary sponsor Mobil 1 is slated to return, and the team recently acquired a new associate sponsor in AAA, who will sponsor their Dodge in five 2009 Cup events. As a result, the situation for this team has been remarkably stable this far into the offseason considering the economic turmoil affecting the series.

2009 Outlook: Fully sponsored and with no reported personnel changes, the goals for Hornish in 2009 are clear: Stay out of trouble, finish races consistently, and get back into the Top 35. Unlike 2008, however, Hornish likely will have to race his way into the season’s first five races. With Tony Stewart ahead of Kurt Busch in the pecking order for a past champion’s provisional, it seems unlikely that Penske Racing will swap owner points between the No. 77 and No. 2 teams once again. As a result, the first five races will tell the tale for this team. Qualify for all five and there’s hope for them of breaking back into the Top 35. Miss any, and Hornish could find himself faced with racing his way into all 36 events.

Hornish faces additional challenges in his sophomore season, as well. The struggles of Busch and Newman in Penske Racing equipment make it clear that the Dodges coming out of the PRS shop are just not up to par right now. Hornish is still learning how to race stock cars in general as it is, and trying to do so in ill-handling cars makes adjusting from IRL to Cup all the more difficult. It’s hard to envision this driver doing much better in 2009 than he did his first time around.

Quote of the Year: “I don’t know how long it’s going to take ‘em to get the car fixed. I don’t know how much time we’re going to get in out there. It’s unfortunate for sure, but we’ll just keep working away at it.” – While this quote was taken after an altercation at Pocono in June, there’s more than a number of 2008 races that heard Hornish telling the same tale

2007 Frontstretch Grade: N/A
2008 Grade: D-

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