Sam Hornish Jr. quietly having solid season, creeping toward championship runBy Kelly Crandall
Sitting fourth in points after the season’s first seven races is Penske Racing driver Sam Hornish Jr. and it’s no fluke. Dating back to the end of the 2011 season, there has been a difference to Hornish behind the wheel and he’s quickly become a weekly contender.
Becoming a winner in NASCAR, Phoenix last November, has led to not only more confidence and belief but reassurance in his decision to stick it out in stock cars.
It also doesn’t hurt that the team continues to build better cars at the shop and the pit crew is getting faster on pit road. Friday night in Richmond it led Hornish to his first top five of 2012, his third top 10. He finished fifth in his No. 12 Wurth Dodge Challenger.
“We started having some brake vibration about lap two or three and we did everything I could do from inside the car to be able to battle that,” said Hornish afterwards. “As the night went on it continued to get a little bit better but not ever to the point where it was all the way out of it and as the tires continued to get hotter and hotter the car wouldn’t turn because that vibration just extenuates any kind of push that you had in the car.”
Hornish started the night 12th but spent much of the event running in the top 10. His machine barely had a scratch on it at night’s end as he and the team just continued to chip away and move forward.
Except Hornish made sure to give credit where credit is due. Every time he came down pit road to the attention of his crew they held serve and got him back on track in good time. It was a mistake free night for the Penske team.
“The big thing that saved us tonight was the guys on the Wurth Dodge did a good job in the pits and gave us good pit stops,” said Hornish. “We picked up two or three spots every time we came in and just really happy for what those guys were able to do for us and just really glad to be out here and be part of the Nationwide Series.”
Crew chief Chad Walter agreed wholeheartedly with his driver. Not only did he sing his team’s praises but that hands down they were the class of the field. It a clean, complete effort by all involved and led to their best race of the season.
Richmond though has always been one of Hornish’s best track. And one of his favorites considering he’s won there before, although not in NASCAR. Hornish has two IndyCar wins at Richmond and when he ran Sprint Cup in 2009 he finished in the top 10 in both races.
“We wanted them to be 500 lappers those years ‘cause we just kept coming all night long,” said Hornish of his Cup success. “I feel like Richmond is a place that it’s really all about compromise. You’re not going to make the car perfect on both ends so how do you make it really good on one end and give up the least amount that you can on the other.
“I feel like any track that we do racing like that, that’s where I excel at and I think that’s why Pocono is one of my favorites places because you’ve got three ends to try to figure out.”
By the end of 2012 Hornish might like every track. The team’s already trying to set themselves up for a championship run, Hornish noting after a disappointing run in Texas where he felt he could have finished better that there’s a long way to go in the season and he drives for Penske, both positives.
Richmond was a little more of the same, Hornish wondering what could have been had the car not had a recurring problem all night. Another race to file away from later in the season and what No. 12 team needs to work on.
“We were good the first 10 laps and we were good after about 60 laps, it’s just that little section in the middle there where we couldn’t go like we need to be able to maintain,” he said.
“The 6 [Ricky Stenhouse Jr.] and the 2 [Elliott Sadler] could go really hard and then I’d catch ‘em so we just needed to work on our car a little bit there. We had a nagging brake problem that started at about lap three so we’re not really sure what he cause of that is but we’ll figure it out and try to figure out how to make ourselves better. I’m really happy with the overall effort of the guys on the team tonight.”
Next comes Talladega, the restrictor plate race that resembles more of a chess match then a race. It’ll be Hornish’s first plate race since this event last season, he finished 13th. He even led two laps.
However, if the start of the 2012 season for Hornish is any indication, the No. 12 team will be bettering many of their statistics this season. All on the way to becoming mentioned as a player in the NNS point battle.
“First and foremost the Wurth Challenger was excellent right off the truck and that’s a testament to everybody that builds these cars, everybody that set ‘em up, everybody that works on ‘em here at the track,” said Walter after Richmond.
“I felt like this was the best we’ve unloaded and most consistent car that we’ve had that’s and that’s something we’ve been working towards ‘cause we haven’t really had that just yet. It’s another shot in the arm of confidence for Sam. We ran alright at Texas, ran a good Cup race last week at Kansas and now we come back and back it up at Richmond in the Nationwide race where the points matter for us.
“Little by little we’re going to chip away and start giving these guys a run for their money on a weekly basis.”