Hornish making strides in second Cup season
It only would have taken a phone call. A quick chat with Roger Penske and Sam Hornish Jr. could have headed back to the security - and success - of IndyCar. The three-time series champion wouldn't have been the first open-wheel star to decide the transition to NASCAR wasn't worth the trouble. Crew chief Travis Geisler wouldn't have blamed his driver, not after a tough rookie Sprint Cup season in 2008, when the Indy 500 winner finished 35th in points, never cracked the top 10 in 34 races and struggled to get a handle on the bigger, boxier cars. "It would have been much easier for him to go get in (IRL driver Ryan) Briscoe's car this year or somebody's car and take that deal back over and get back to winning championships," Geisler said. "But he wants to make this work and he's committed to it." So Hornish has taken his lumps. Now he's hoping to take the leap, the same one former Formula One driver Juan Pablo Montoya has pulled off so artfully during his third full season on the circuit. Hornish points to Montoya's breakthrough 2009 season - the Colombian became the first foreign-born driver to qualify for the Chase for the championship and is third in the standings heading into Saturday's race at Lowe's Motor Speedway - as proof open-wheel drivers can thrive in Cup racing. "If you look at it, we have more top-10s this year (seven) than he did last year (three) and I feel there's a great opportunity," Hornish said. "I feel if I can continue to learn and make those kind of steps for next year we'll be able to be where he's at." The signs of progress are easy to spot, both in the standings and on the track. Hornish is 26th in the points with six races left. He finished 12th at Auto Club Speedway last week, his best performance at the 2-mile oval in five career Cup starts there, an upward trend that has become common during his second full year on the circuit. The driver who needed directions to some of the tracks early in his Cup career now finds himself running in fast company most weekends. The bad days aren't nearly as bad as they were a year ago, and the good days are even better. Not that it's good enough, not yet anyway. "We're starting to turn a corner, but the thing that we really need to work on for next year, we want to be in the Chase," Hornish said. "It's a tough thing to do but we know that with the strength of the races that we've had so far, there's good possibilities that if we do things right and play our cards right that that could be a possibility for us." Making it a reality won't be easy. There's a certain amount of patience it takes to succeed at Cup racing that Hornish didn't need in IndyCar, where he won 19 races in eight seasons. There he knew he had one of the best cars on the track most days, regardless of the venue. It's not the same in Cup. It's taken time for him to learn how to manage his expectations, and his car. "You miss going out there and winning races," he admitted. "But even though I was winning races over there I got a little bit complacent and wasn't having a whole lot of fun doing it because I felt like I could learn so much more over here and challenge myself." Sure, he wants to win. But he's discovered there are victories in Cup racing that don't include taking the checkered flag. Salvaging a decent finish can sometimes feel like a win. "The days that you have a top-five car you don't feel like you've got to go (for a win)," Hornish said. "Maybe you end up eighth, which is not really where you thought you'd be, but you didn't try to make it a winning car and wreck it and end up 35th." Finding the middle ground has been difficult at times. He's got seven top-10s this year and 14 finishes of 30th or worse and knows turning 35th-place into 17th-place is the difference between competing for a spot in the Chase and watching it from the sidelines. "We've had a lot of strong races, but it's like we either ran really well or we ran terribly," he said. "The days we don't have a top-10 car we need to get a 10-20th place out of it and that's something we really haven't been able to do this year." Still, not all 35th-place finishes are created equal. He was running on the lead lap with 70 to go at Bristol last month when a busted radiator sent him tumbling to 38th. He didn't leave the track disheartened. "I hadn't even been within four laps of the lead at the end of the race before and we're 70 to go and I'm on the lead lap and feel like I can continue to move forward," he said. "That was a big victory for me." So he's going to stick it out. "Hopefully when we get to the point where we can win races, it's going to be even more gratifying than winning some IndyCar races," he said. "We just want to keep moving forward."