Hornish Has His ‘Wow’ Moment In Vegas
When Sam Hornish Jr. was in the IZOD IndyCar Series, he made success look easy with 19 victories in eight seasons including the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and three series championships.
He discovered how hard it was to achieve success in NASCAR when he was a Sprint Cup rookie in 2008. By 2010, he was out of a Cup ride and ran a limited Nationwide Series schedule in 2011.
Because of those trials and tribulations in NASCAR when Hornish won his first NASCAR race at Phoenix Int’l Raceway in 2011 he openly cried in victory lane.
“When I won at Phoenix a couple of years ago I had a hard time celebrating because I didn’t feel like celebrating at that time because of the loss of Dan (Wheldon) at this race track,” Hornish said, referring to Wheldon’s fatal crash at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2011. “That was something where there were a lot of questions in my mind as far as what I should be doing with the rest of my life and things like that. Also just knowing that it could be anybody and I couldn’t celebrate like I wanted to and I had to basically use my faith to be able to figure out what was the right thing for me.”
Hornish also showed emotion on Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway after he dominated the Sam’s Town 300 for his second career Nationwide Series win. That’s because his NASCAR career has never been easy forcing him to often wonder if he could succeed in stock car racing. He took over the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil ride midway through last season when A.J. Allmendinger failed a NASCAR drug test and was subsequently fired by team owner Roger Penske. Hornish did well in that ride but the team chose Joey Logano to take over the No. 22 beginning this season.
Hornish’s ride on Saturday, however, reminded him of a happier time when he raced at Vegas for PDM Racing in 200.
“With the troubles we had toward the end of the season last year – not troubles but when it was announced that I wasn’t going to be in the 22 Cup car that was another hit,” Hornish said. “I got to the last race of the season at Miami and my last crew chief told me, ‘If you ever get some confidence I don’t think they will stop you.’ I have had some pretty hard hits to the ego and I don’t think I am one that had a big ego in the first place but to go through some of the things we have gone through in the past six years — today I remembered the first time I ever came out here to Las Vegas to race.
“I came back here with a couple year old car and I was able to finish in the top three. That finish allowed the team to get a brand new car to go to Indianapolis and that race at Indy got me in the eyes of a couple people. It is one of those full circle things.
“Maybe I will take this 13 years later and try to make the best I can of it. It is just wonderful. It is what racing is all about. You have ups and downs and you have to remember a lot of times that it is just a game. It means a heck of a lot to us and we want to win and want to win championships and races and all that good stuff but it is pretty trivial in the grand scheme of things. I love doing it and have had a lot of fun and worked harder than I have in a little while and a lot of that comes from Greg and the motivation. I have said that this is like a giant puzzle we are trying to put together and we have to have multiple pieces to put it together. I feel like that was a good piece and made me want to be better. We have some really good people at Penske Racing with the guys that work on the cars and people like Jeremy Boone and Shawn Powell that work on the strength and mental part. I have worked on that as much as I have driving the race car.”
Hornish has proven that not only does he have talent but also a large share of perseverance. And on Saturday his perseverance definitely paid off.
There were many times in Hornish, Jr’s spectacular IZOD IndyCar Series career when he was so fast, so good that it left his competitors saying, “Wow.”
During Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race, Kyle Busch had one of those “Wow” moments when he saw Hornish’s No. 12 Wurth Penske Ford Mustang blow past him and drive away.
“You wouldn’t believe how fast Hornish is,” Busch radioed to his crew. “His car is so fast you just wouldn’t believe it. He’s driving away from me.”
Despite two late-race cautions, including a final restart where Hornish was the leader and chose the outside lane to start alongside Busch, Hornish was able to take the lead for good and drive to the checked flag.
“I was half happy that the yellow came out after that next to last restart because I didn’t feel like I got a good one and Kyle was playing a game with me trying to make me go and I fell into the trap and didn’t have a good restart,” Hornish said. “The fact that we had an opportunity to try again and I got the proper run on the restart and was able to hold him off was a good thing. I have had races in Indy Car where I have led 160 laps and somehow on the last 40 it fell apart because of yellows and restarts and all that. You never like to see it but you have a car like you do today and you can beat someone as good on restarts as Kyle Busch is and it makes you feel pretty good about your day. That is the cherry on top that we had those two restarts that we were able to hold him off.”
Hornish earned his status as the most dominant IZOD IndyCar series driver of his era. After an impressive rookie season with PDM Racing in 2000 Hornish hit the big time with Pennzoil Panther Racing in 2001 when he scored his first career IndyCar title. He won the championship again in 2002 when he fought off a new team in the series — Team Penske.
Hornish was so impressive in his battles against Helio Castroneves and Gil de Ferran that team owner Roger Penske decided if his team couldn’t beat Hornish, might as well hire him. So when de Ferran retired at the end of 2003 Hornish joined Penske’s elite IndyCar operation.
In 2006, Hornish achieved his lifelong goal of winning the Indianapolis 500 and went on to score his third IZOD IndyCar Series crown that year.
Hornish would leave IndyCar after the 2007 season and become a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. But after several disappointing seasons in Cup, Hornish was not afraid to take a step back in his career to improve his stock car skills in the Nationwide Series.
After that emotional victory at Phoenix for his first NASCAR win he came back for a full-season Nationwide effort in 2012. Hornish got off to a fast start in the season-opening Nationwide race at Daytona, backed it up with another strong effort in Phoenix and drove to victory in his third race of the season to give him one win, two top-five and three top-10 finishes in the season’s first three contests.
Hornish gave Mustang its first win of the season when he led four times for 114 laps in the 200-lap contest. The win gives Hornish a 19-point lead over Justin Algaier, Elliott Sadler and Brian Scott in the Nationwide Series standings.
Hornish’s car was so dominant it reminded him of his days in the IZOD IndyCar Series when he was “Sam the Man” – as in the “man to beat.”
“It reminds me of some of my Indy Car days of having good cars and going out there,” Hornish said. “I think I used more energy celebrating than I did actually driving the car today. It felt good and there was maybe one time I scared myself a little bit and thought we have 90 to go we can take it easy and stretch it out. It is a great feeling to be able to do that. I think one of the things that hopefully is good about this team at this point is that as soon as I found out Greg (Erwin, crew chief) was going to be over here he sent me a text and we sat down and started talking. I haven’t had anybody that has been as dedicated as what he has. It makes me feel like good things are going to come. It makes me want to work harder and all the guys on the team want to work harder too. It is great for us to all be hungry the way we are and we feel like we have a lot of good opportunities here at Penske Racing.
“Roger has said many times he wants a third Cup team again and we want to make sure we do things the right way. It is one thing at a time and we want to get our Ford to victory lane first and there is a difference with the Roush Yates – the Penske guys did a great job with engines the last couple of years and had really great reliability but this takes it to the next little thing. They absorbed a lot of people from Penske so there were things brought over that we were doing. It is a great combination and shows what a business man and person that Roger is. A lot of people questioned why you would go somewhere else after the success you had with Dodge but he knew there was a way we could be better and he wanted to jump full on to it and see if we could live up to what we should.”
Erwin was already a “Sam Fan” from his days in the IZOD IndyCar Series. Erwin knew about Hornish’s blazing speed and fearless attitude and believed that together they could accomplish some great things in the Nationwide Series this season.
“The truth of the matter is that you have a guy here that has won arguably one of the biggest races in the world and several championships in a series that is driven predominantly by engineering tactics and technology and things like that,” Erwin said. “I think I walked into this deal and I understand and can appreciate and see all the things that go on at Penske Racing that in my heart show me that there is a level of perfection there that I don’t think you want to race against. If you really knew and when you can get all the flags pointed in one direction it really lets you know there is some horsepower behind you.
“As far as this guy is concerned, if you can do some of the things he has done in race cars and had the success he has there is no doubt in my mind he can be a champion in this series. He just needs the pieces of the puzzle to fall together. This sport is all momentum. You guys see it. You cover it every week. You run good and run good and sometimes run good when you shouldn’t and we call that momentum. To get that ball across the goal line today and finish with a win is awesome.”