Sam Hornish Jr.
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Roger Curtis doesn't see Sam Hornish, Jr., falling into a trap of instant gratification. Not even when an audition for the 2013 season might be on the line.
The president of Michigan International Speedway has watched stock-car drivers take to the wheel with the mentality that he or she has to win now, in order to maintain a spot in the highest levels of stock-car racing.
Still, if Curtis saw that possibility for Hornish and had a few words to offer him, he'd say this much: "I'd say to him, 'Don't feel like you have to prove instantly that you're going to make the [championship] chase,' " Curtis said. " 'Go out and continue to learn and grow and develop. Don't get too upset if things don't go perfectly. Learn from those mistakes.' If he goes in with that mindset, you're going to see that same growth in the Sprint Cup car that you've seen in Nationwide."
Penske Racing announced Wednesday that Hornish, a Defiance native, will drive the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge "for the foreseeable future" after the team released AJ Allmendinger from his contract in the wake of a NASCAR-mandated suspension. Hornish had been driving in place of Allmendinger in the Sprint Cup Series since July 7, when NASCAR suspended Allmendinger after he failed a random drug test.
"We have invested greatly in AJ, and we were confident in his success with our team," team owner Roger Penske said Wednesday in a statement. "The decision to dismiss him is consistent with how we would treat any other Penske Racing team member under similar circumstances."
Hornish has spent the bulk of the season on the Nationwide Series, but he has driven in three Sprint Cup races since Allmendinger's suspension. Hornish will drive on the Sprint Cup series for the remainder of the 2012 season, including the Pure Michigan 400 on Aug. 19 at Michigan International Speedway.
Roger Penske said at the end of 2011 that his goal is to return Hornish full-time to Sprint Cup driving in 2013, but on Wednesday he stated that his racing team will evaluate its options for a driver of the No. 22 car for the 2013 Sprint Cup season.
Is Hornish poised to take over the Penske vacancy for next season?
That's Penske Racing's call, and there are several other Sprint Cup drivers who are not under contract with their respective teams past this season, including Joey Logano, Martin Truex, Jr., and Ryan Newman.
But Hornish is in a prime spot to audition for that opportunity. One former driver believes Hornish's relationship with Penske Racing works in his favor, but his long-term future depends on his success for the rest of this season.
"Sam is definitely the right guy to stick in there," said Rusty Wallace, a former NASCAR Winston Cup champion who is now an auto racing analyst for ESPN. "But if I was Sam, I'd be a little nervous. In the Cup, you need to understand every aspect of the car. If you take a guy like Sam and he doesn't perform, and he doesn't get the finishes, that's a lot of pressure on the guy."
Hornish earned his highest finish in his last four Sprint Cup races on Sunday, finishing 16th in Indianapolis.
"I feel like we're going to move forward," Hornish said. "We're going to look for a top-10 this weekend [at Pocono] and continue to move forward. We've got to start getting top-10s and top-fives, and you do that and you'll start finding ways to get to Victory Lane."
But consider that at the start of the season, Hornish was relegated to the Nationwide Series, a notch below the Sprint Cup Series -- a move made by Penske Racing after Hornish's first three seasons in stock-car racing.
Those seasons --2008, 2009, and 2010 -- weren't just defined by eight top-10 finishes in 106 starts. They were punctuated by vehicular carnage.
"I wrecked a lot stuff in the first couple years," Hornish said. "Because I expected too much of myself."
Fox Sports recently named Hornish, a former Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar champion, one of the top 12 drivers to make the crossover from open-wheel driving to stock-car racing, joining drivers such as Tony Stewart, A.J. Foyt, and Mario Andretti. But there are drivers who haven't been able to make the transition, including 2012 Indianapolis 500 champion Dario Franchitti, who had a forgettable NASCAR stint in 2008.
Curtis explained it's not an easy transition, given the dynamics of the IndyCar lifestyle and schedule (15 races in a six-month season, as opposed to NASCAR's 39 races in a nine-month Sprint Cup season). Second, Curtis notes the sheer physics of each automobile -- a Sprint Cup car weighs three times as much as an IndyCar and a stock car creates less downforce, which creates aerodynamic grip that helps a car adhere to a track's surface.
But for Hornish, it wasn't just about the car.
"I didn't have anybody really in my ear saying, 'Just finish. It doesn't matter where you finish. Just bring the car home in one piece,' " Hornish said. "The more you do that, the more you get the opportunity to run. People didn't want to hurt my feelings or say something. Last year, I sat back and watched some things, and the light bulb came on. Sometimes, the race is about, how are we going to make it to the end?"
Hornish drives the No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Dodge on the Nationwide circuit -- Nationwide cars have a lower horsepower than Sprint Cup cars, and Nationwide races are shorter than Sprint Cup races. Wallace also acknowledged that Hornish's unfamiliarity with the physical aspects of the No. 22 Shell/Pennzoil Dodge could hinder him as a driver, short-term.
But events within the last four weeks have created some inconsistency in Hornish's schedule and preparation -- not necessarily allowing Hornish time to sit in and tinker with the Sprint Cup car.
"We just left everything sitting as long as we could," Hornish said. "They [Penske Racing] had everything ready for me, being that was the case if I needed to be in the car. When Tuesday night came around and we knew what was going to happen, I was sitting there saying you know, I wish we could go test."
Given that Hornish has been called into Sprint Cup duty in less-than-ideal circumstances, Wallace praised Hornish's professionalism in an uncharacteristic situation.
"He's 100 percent focused," Wallace said. "Racing is everything. It's the world to him."
Contact Rachel Lenzi at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @RLenziBlade.
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