DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Sam Hornish Jr. left Daytona International Speedway yesterday the same way he came in - locked into a starting position for Sunday's 50th running of the Daytona 500.
As Hornish embarked on a bold career jump from the open-wheel racing ranks into stock cars full time, a move by Penske Racing team owner Roger Penske allowed Hornish to use the points accumulated last year by another Penske car, and thereby guarantee the only three-time champion of the IndyCar Series that he would be in the first five NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events.
But Hornish showed he belongs in that 500 field - owner points or no owner points - with a strong finish in the first of two Gatorade Duels in Daytona. The Defiance native and 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion finished ninth in his 150-mile qualifier and will start in the 10th row on Sunday, from the 19th position.
"We did what we came here to do - we made it, and we made it through with no problem," Hornish said. "We showed that we could make the race, with or without the points. That was important for a lot of reasons."
Hornish started 20th in the event and eventually moved up into the top five. He took an early pit stop when he sensed a tire going down, but he worked back up the ladder.
"It felt like we were right on the edge, so we decided to pit, and it's a good thing we did," Hornish said. "I was right in the pack with the rest of the leaders, so I'm happy with the way my Mobil 1 guys handled the pit stop. This isn't a first for any of them, but it was really the first time working all together."
Hornish, whose team will change the motor and transmission in his Dodge before the big race, was satisfied with his overall performance.
"It was pretty good - it could have been better - but I probably lost three spots there at the end when I went up on the high line and nobody went with me," Hornish said. "But it was a learning thing, and I got more comfortable as the race went on."
Hornish attempted to qualify for eight Cup races at the end of the 2007 season but made just two of them. He said earning a place in the Daytona 500 field through the front door was satisfying.
"It's a big relief, and I'm real happy that it worked out," Hornish said. "We've definitely bumped ourselves up quite a bit as far as where we were going to start. It's a real confidence thing for this team too."