Sam Hornish Jr. won Saturday’s Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas, a victory key in his goal for the season.
Just as no race car driver would want to start a lap down in this Saturday’s Jeff Foxworthy’s Grit Chips 300 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Hornish said it’s important not to fall behind early in the season’s point standings.
“One of the things we wanted to do is get out of the box well. We didn’t do that last year,” said Hornish, the points lead on the Nationwide circuit.
“By the middle or end of May, we were 72 points out and then we brought it back to 20. We were in a good position, tied for second in the points and then we had three flat tires in the course of three weekends.”
He ultimately ended up fourth in the series points, but it exposed a glaring weakness of the No. 12 team.
“We have to finish races better this year,” Hornish said. “We would run in the top three all day long, and we’d get to that 90 perent mark and fall off. We have to be finishing strong.”
There is more reason to be optimistic. While the engines built inside the Penske shop were reliable with no failures last season, a switch to Ford and Roush-Yates engines have meant significant power gains.
Hornish said he knew after the third lap of practice at Las Vegas that his Ford Mustang was a great race car.
Hornish has another ace in the hole with teammate Brad Keselowski, the defending Sprint Cup Series champion. The two have developed a good relationship as Keselowski respects many of the accomplishments of Hornish, a former Indianapolis 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion.
“I like Brad because he is genuine, a what you see is what you get type,” Hornish said. “Obviously, (team owner) Roger (Penske) has a lot of trust in him. I only had a couple of teammates in IndyCar, and I’ve never had a bad relationship with a teammate. I’ve had good teammates through the years, but I’ve not had best friends either. ”
Hornish has never been one noted for a flashy personality, although he believes it has hurt him at times during his NASCAR career.
He has nine top-10 finishes, but 19 DNF’s in 129 Sprint Cup starts. There is a better record in the Nationwide Series where his win on Saturday was his second in 69 starts.
Still, Hornish isn’t one likely to go up and ask other drivers for help.
“I’m not good at playing the game. I don’t really ask other drivers for information, so I don’t get the wrong information, but I’m not going to get helped either,” he said. “I’ve been one of those quiet guys who goes about my business, but it can be detrimental at times. I’ll talk to somebody and have a genuine conversation, but I’m not going to butter them up just to get something out of them.”
It’s not that the Defiance, Ohio native won’t work with other drivers. To the contrary, he’s found out that teammates Keselowski and Ryan Blaney like many of the same things in their race cars as he does.
That’s not bad news considering Hornish had 22 top-10 finishes in 33 races last season. He could, however, use some improvement at Bristol where his average finish is 32nd in seven Cup races and 12th in three Nationwide Series races.
Now in his fifth year in NASCAR, Hornish finds himself in a little bit of a strange role. He is the veteran of the Penske organization, which includes 20-somethings Joey Logano and Keselowski, and the teenager Blaney.
“It’s sad because I think of 15 years ago and I was 18,” he said. “Now, I’m the old guy on the team at 33. That shows you where the sport is headed. But, I’m glad to still be here if I’m the old guy.”