BROOKLYN, Mich. - The first ARCA race of Sam Hornish Jr.'s career leaves him room for improvement. But not much room.
Hornish finished second in yesterday's Michigan 200 ARCA RE/MAX Series event at Michigan International Speedway. The 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion is a relative novice in the stock car ranks, but Hornish qualified on the pole for this race, and led the field through the early stages.
Erik Darnell, who slipped past Hornish on a restart about a third of the way through the race, was the eventual winner, with Erin Crocker finishing third. Hornish led 29 laps, while Darnell was out front for 58 laps.
Hornish had trouble in the pits after surrendering the lead to Darnell, and that compounded the challenges for the Penske Racing driver.
The crew for the three-time IndyCar Series champion struggled with a stubborn fuel overflow vent problem, costing Hornish a lot of track position, and dropping him to 17th when the race restarted on lap 46.
"We just basically couldn't get any fuel in the car," Hornish said. "It's hard to say what it was, but I really wasn't too worried about it. I didn't want to get frustrated with it, because obviously, we're here to learn."
The stock car driving education picked up in intensity at that point. Hornish had to work his way back through the field to ultimately engage Tim McCreadie's No. 31 car in a lengthy battle for second place in the latter stages of the race. Hornish said the scenario was a good one since racing experience in a stock car was his priority.
"As a race car driver, I would have liked to been out there in front, but as a student trying to learn and get more seat time and practice and work on the adaptability, that was probably the best thing we could have asked for," Hornish said about the myriad situations he faced.
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"We got time where we were working through slower traffic, working on restarts, and just trying to be aggressive out there. And on the other hand, we got a lot of side-by-side racing, we ran with the 31 car a long time - a long time of side-by-side racing - and it took me quite a while to get around him."
Hornish, the Defiance native who still makes northwest Ohio his home, said the grab bag full of situations he encountered yesterday provided the lesson he was looking for in his first ARCA event.
"We got a little bit of all of it today - got a sense of what it's like to lead, feeling what the car is like out there, as well as working through traffic, and side-by-side," he said.
Hornish was standing on the throttle at the start, leading the field from his pole position. By the time the first caution came out just six laps into the race when Justin Marks and A.J. Henriksen got tangled up, Hornish had built almost a two second lead.
After the pit problems and his systematic work to get back in the lead group, Hornish was third on the final restart with 13 laps to go. He finally got past McCreadie with nine laps left, and went to work on closing the gap with leader Darnell, who had qualified third.
But worn tires and a quicker Darnell prevented any further changes in the lead. Darnell said he made a final push once he saw Hornish get by McCreadie.
"We were doing all we could to conserve fuel in the end," said Darnell, who won his second ARCA race of the season.
"I saw Hornish coming, but fortunately for us, he was caught up in a battle with the 31 car. And that allowed us to set our pace and save some fuel. Once Hornish cleared the 31, we knew we had to go, so we threw everything we had at it and came out on top."
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