DEFIANCE - The stock car racing season is the ultimate grind - a 10-month marathon that starts in Daytona in early February and ends near Miami at the end of November after zig-zagging across the country while the climate in Ohio changes four times.
Northwest Ohio native Sam Hornish, Jr., just completed his second year of full-time racing in the Sprint Cup Series, but that grueling schedule has not dulled his competitive edge. Hornish finished 28th in the points race this season - ahead of such NASCAR purebloods as Bobby Labonte, Michael Waltrip, and Robby Gordon That did not leave him content, but anxious for a shot at moving further up the ladder.
"It's a really long season and you go at it as hard as you can, but there's not this big sense of relief when it's over," Hornish said. "I came out of this year with a feeling that we can do a lot better, and really wanting to get started on that process. I felt like we definitely learned a lot this season, and that leaves you feeling ready to put what you learned to use."
Hornish was 35th in the points after his first season in the Sprint Cup Series in 2008. He moved into stock car racing two years ago after a record-setting career in the IndyCar Series. Hornish won the first of his three IndyCar Series championships in 2001 at the age of 22, and then won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 in dramatic fashion with a daring pass in the final stretch.
"Going from an open-wheel car to a stock car was a huge change, so I had to be patient and expect it to take some time to get adjusted to the differences, because there are so many," said Hornish, who races in the Sprint Cup for Penske Racing in the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge.
"I feel a lot better about this now than I did when we first started in stock cars, but there is still a lot to learn about it - the learning process goes on. You never know all you need to know about the car and how it reacts to the conditions."
The Hornish scorecard for the recently completed season shows two finishes in the top five and seven finishes in the top 10 during the 36-race schedule. His 28th place finish in the points guarantees Hornish a slot in the starting grid for the first five races of the 2010 season, and Hornish hopes by the end of the coming schedule to be firmly entrenched among the upper echelon of the drivers in the Sprint Cup.
"We feel like we've been doing what we need to do to bump ourselves up in the standings, so it is just a matter of keeping on that course," he said. "We need to even things out more, and not have those days where you encounter trouble and end up finishing in 35th place. We need to get up in the top 15 or the top 12 on a regular basis, instead of back in 35th ."
Hornish knows the formula for success. He had $4,136,163 in winnings this season, and his two top five finishes and his seven placements in the top 10 were better than seven drivers who finished above him in the points. The eight races Hornish failed to finish were the most among the top 33 drivers in the Cup Series, and that dragged him down in the points.
"We have to make sure we make it to the end of the races - that is very important for the points involved," Hornish said. "I look at 2010 and think it could be a very big year for us. Things are steadily coming together, and our goal for next year is to make it in the Chase. That's a lofty goal, but we just need to take the bad days out, and I think we can make a run at that."
With a stretch in the middle of the 2009 season in which he had four top 10 finishes in a 10-race span, Hornish got a taste of the kind of consistency it will take to get him into next year's Chase for the Championship - the lucrative 10 race playoff for the season title that takes place at the end of the Cup schedule. Only the 12 highest ranked drivers in points are part of the field.
"The Chase is everyone's goal. You'd much rather be a part of it than be running in those final races of the season and watching those other drivers compete for a championship," Hornish said. "Winning a championship in any series is very, very difficult, but here you have to make the Chase first."
Hornish said the 2010 season, which starts in early February with the Daytona 500, will give him his best opportunity to challenge the premier drivers in the Sprint Cup.
"This coming season will be the best chance we've had so far to accomplish some big things," Hornish said. "It can be extremely frustrating when it's not going well, but you remember the days that you did well, and how good it all felt. The more I do this, the more committed I get."
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