NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 NASCAR Driver Review: Sam Hornish Jr.

Sam Hornish Jr.

2009 Ride: No. 77 Penske Championship Racing Dodge
2009 Primary Sponsors: Mobil 1 (30 races), AAA (5 races), PPG/Olympic Paints (1 race)
2009 Owner: Roger Penske
2009 Crew Chief: Travis Geisler
2009 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 2 top fives, 7 top 10s, 8 DNFs, 28th in points

High Point: The stretch of the season from May to August was the best for Sam Hornish Jr. in 2009. In that stretch, Hornish picked up nearly all of his top-10 finishes and both of his top fives. In addition, Hornish won the Sprint Showdown at Lowe’s (now Charlotte) Motor Speedway in order to gain entrance into the Sprint All-Star Race.

Low Point: The worst stretch of Hornish’s season was most definitely the four-race stretch from Charlotte in October to Texas in November. At Charlotte, Hornish spun out twice in the first 10 laps of the race, then spent time making repairs in the garage. Hornish finished the event, but he was 36 laps down in 40th. At Martinsville, Hornish again spun the No. 77 early and hit the inside wall, but continued. Later on, Hornish retired the car and settled for a 36th-place finish.

At Talladega, the engine expired after only 44 laps, relegating Hornish to another 40th-place finish. And of course, there was the wreck with Jimmie Johnson at Texas, caused by David Reutimann tapping the No. 77 in turn 2 and Hornish sliding up into Johnson. Hornish. After repairing the damage, Hornish eventually crashed again on the backstretch and retired, credited with another 40th-place finish. In this four-race stretch, Hornish scored only 184 points, an average of 46 points per race. This is only 36 points more than the absolute minimum number of points that can be earned by a team starting all four races.

Summary: After a rookie season that could be described as disastrous, Hornish seemingly had nowhere to go but up in 2009. Once again, the team was forced to buy the owner points of Bill Davis Racing’s former No. 22 for Hornish to be guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of the season. (Last year, the team gave Hornish’s No. 77 the owner points from the flagship No. 2 to get into the first few races). Luckily, with the decreased number of entries each week this season, Hornish was never outside of the Top 35 in owner points all season long.

While 2008 could be considered consistently bad, 2009 can best be described as simply inconsistent. Even in the good times during the season, the team simply could not put together two great runs in a row. For example, Hornish finished a strong fifth at Michigan in August, making his fuel hold out to the end.

What happened after that weekend? Two consecutive finishes of 35th at Bristol and Atlanta, then a eighth-place finish at Richmond. What happened the next week after Hornish’s career-best fourth at Pocono? The big wreck at Watkins Glen and a 35th-place finish. Granted, that wreck was not Sam’s fault, as he got bumped off the road by Kasey Kahne, but still….

Speaking of Richmond, the 0.75-mile oval was Hornish’s best track in 2009. Sam was able to score top-10 finishes in both events there this season (the aforementioned eighth in September and a then-career best sixth in May).

But where Sam was snakebit the most was car control, as six of those eight DNFs were due to crashes. This is the one place where Sam did not improve from his rookie season (in 2008, Hornish had four DNFs, all from wrecks). During our Live Blogs this year, many of our readers simply assumed that Hornish would wreck at some point during the race, even when he was running fine (some readers claimed something along the lines of “It’s not a race until Hornish spins out.”) The propensity to crash must be stopped if he’s capable of moving up a level of competitiveness within the sport.

Penske Championship Racing spent the 2008-2009 offseason readying the new Dodge P6R8 engine for use in the 2009 season. The results for Penske? Generally, very good, especially compared to Richard Petty Motorsports. The engines were very good for the team and generally reliable. However, Hornish did suffer two engine failures during the year (Loudon (September) and Talladega (November)), so that is something that should be looked over thoroughly before next season.

Team Ranking: Second of three teams. Hornish’s improvement coincided with the virtual collapse of the No. 12 team with David Stremme behind the wheel, boosting the No. 77 up into the second position. However, both the Nos. 12 and 77 were well off the pace of the No. 2 driven by Kurt Busch.

Off-Track News: There was not all that much news pertaining specifically to Hornish off track this year. He did participate in a fuel economy challenge at Solider Field in Chicago back in July. Hornish, along with teammates Busch and Stremme drove Smart Fortwos around a temporary road course, completing fuel economy challenges along the way.

Team owner Roger Penske made big headlines in 2009 when he attempted to purchase Saturn from General Motors. Unfortunately for Penske, he could not get guarantees on a factory to build Saturns after a three-year agreement with General Motors expired. As a result, Penske had to back out of the deal, forcing GM to permanently shutter the brand.

2010 Outlook: Very similar to last year at this time. Mobil 1 is back as the primary sponsor for the team, and Travis Geisler will continue as Hornish’s crew chief. No official changes have been announced up to this point. Unlike last year, Penske will not have to purchase owner points to guarantee Hornish’s place in the Daytona 500 in February, so Hornish will be starting the season with his own points for the first time.

Hornish and Geisler will simply need to take this season’s performance and hopefully improve on that. Since 2010 will be Sam’s third full year in the Sprint Cup Series, he can now focus on improving on the tracks that he has struggled on so far since he has effectively learned all of them by now.

Hornish also needs to make it to the finish more often. The No. 77 was not around for the finish eight separate times in 2009, including three in a row late in the year. This was second only to Robby Gordon for drivers that did not start-and-park. Fixing that stat will be necessary in order for the team to continue improving.

Quote of the Year: “I got hit by the No. 00 car and didn’t even have time to correct before I got up into Jimmie [Johnson]. I don’t ever want to feel like I’ve affected the outcome of the championship. I have my head down a little bit this week because I had a really good car, and all we wanted to do is make it so we could race the last three laps like that and not the first three laps.” – Hornish describing the infamous wreck with Jimmie Johnson on lap 3 of the Dickies 500

2008 Frontstretch Grade: D-
2009 Grade: C-

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