Hornish Jr. returns to IndyCar as fan, ready to see his records beaten

Sam Hornish Jr. will lose the title of being the most recent and only driver to win an IndyCar championship for Roger Penske when Will Power or Helio Castroneves wraps up the title this weekend.

(From left) Sam Hornish Jr. talks with four-time IndyCar champion Rick Mears prior to the 2014 Verizon IndyCar race at Sonoma Raceway.

Bruce Martin

SONOMA, California – There was a time when Sam Hornish, Jr. had a commanding presence in the IndyCar Series garage area. He was “Sam the Man” – the winningest driver in Indy Racing League history with 19 victories, three series titles and the winner of the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

He was also the last driver to give famed team owner Roger Penske his only championship in the current IndyCar Series championship, way back in 2006.

Hornish left IndyCar after the 2007 season to drive in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series for Team Penske. He was initially unsuccessful in that effort and reinvented himself in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, nearly winning the series championship for Team Penske last season. Ironically, Penske did not have a ride for Hornish in 2014 and the former IndyCar ace is driving a limited Nationwide Series schedule for Joe Gibbs Racing. That combination has already won a race in Nationwide this season.

Hornish was at Sonoma Raceway this past weekend as a television analyst of the Go Pro Grand Prix of Sonoma and was able to quietly work his way through the paddock relatively unnoticed. Some of his old racing friends shared warm remembrances with Hornish, who in a pair of dark slacks and a light blue golf shirt, it was easy to overlook the former three-time champion.

That certainly wasn’t the case when Hornish drove an IndyCar, however. He was “The Target” – the driver everyone knew they had to beat if they were going to have a successful season. He was an extremely talented driver on the ovals and won his first IndyCar Series race when he was just 21 years old for Panther Racing in 2001. He also won the championship that season.

Team Penske moved over from CART to a full-time effort in the IRL in 2002 with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves as the drivers. Both of them battled Hornish for the title that year but once again Hornish prevailed with his second-straight championship.

Unable to beat Hornish, Penske decided to hire him, instead. Hornish drove for Team Penske from 2004-2007 and remains the only driver to give Penske a championship in this form of racing since he left CART after the 2001 season.

That is going to change this weekend at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California because the only two drivers that have a legitimate chance of winning the 2014 Verizon IndyCar Series championship are two of the three Team Penske drivers. Will Power has a 51-point lead over Helio Castroneves entering Saturday night’s MAVTV 500. Although the race pays double points and there are 100 points available in the finale, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay will be eliminated once Power takes the green flag on Saturday night.

Hornish will be happy to see his former team owner Penske win the championship, but he has also enjoyed his role as the only IndyCar Series champion for the team for all these years.

“I think Will having the lead he has right now makes it hard for Helio but now he has a points cushion and Helio will have to be more aggressive,” Hornish said. “It doesn’t matter to me at all. I would like to say I’m the last guy at Team Penske to win the IndyCar championship. Ryan Hunter-Reay took away from me the last American driver to win the Indianapolis 500 when he won this year. But that’s what records are about.

“Take advantage of the ones you have and do the best you can. I think it will be a great run to the finish and, with a 500-mile race in 100 degree temperatures, it’s going to be exciting one way or another.”

Hornish considers himself a bigger IndyCar Series fan now than he was as a driver. After all, Hornish was a fan first and that is what motivated him to become a driver. He vividly remembers sitting in Turn 1 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway as a five-year-old and seeing Danny Sullivan’s famous “Spin and Win” in the 1985 Indianapolis 500 right before his very eyes.

“I’ve really tried to keep in mind what is going on and the things that are happening in the sport mostly because I’m a fan of racing in general,” Hornish said. “I’ve watched many forms of racing and always had a love for IndyCar and I can continue to see how things evolve in some ways. To see the same faces is neat but I’ve had a great time being able to keep up with it over the years.

“Now, I have more than one driver I care about seeing win.”

When Hornish left IndyCar, he never looked back and he has no plans on ever returning to the seat of an IndyCar.

“When I quit doing IndyCars, it wasn’t because I was going to go make more money or be famous; it was because I felt like I had accomplished way more than I wanted to here and challenge myself again,” Hornish said. “That challenge is not really done, to be real honest with you.

“I enjoy IndyCar racing now because I’m not in it. At some point in time that isn’t what all racing will be for me. Right now I want to be full-time Sprint Cup again – that’s the goal. But I also want to do it the right way, too. I want to be in good equipment. It was shown last year and this year if I have good equipment and people around me I can win races. I was also very good that year when I filled in for A.J. Allmendinger back in 2012.”

Time will tell if Hornish gets another chance at NASCAR Sprint Cup. A look back in time, however, only displays his remarkable brilliance as a three-time IndyCar Series champion.

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