Sam Hornish Jr., left, and Jimmie Johnson make contact with just over 20 laps to go in the Daytona 500. Hornish was able to keep his car under control and finished 15th. The field goes through turn one for the first time in the Daytona 500. Unlike other sports, NASCAR starts the season with its biggest event, and yesterday was its 50th anniversary.
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - With two Penske Racing cars leading the parade across the finish line in the Daytona 500 last night, in the midst of the celebration it would have been easy to overlook the third member of that team.
But Roger Penske, the racing icon who has dominated the open-wheel ranks but had never enjoyed Victory Lane after the biggest race of the year in the stock car ranks, was quick to commend his Sprint Cup Series rookie, Sam Hornish Jr. After congratulating race winner Ryan Newman and runner-up Kurt Busch, Penske assessed the first Daytona 500 for Hornish.
"Sam drove a masterful race," Penske said after watching Hornish start 19th in the field, move up as high as fifth, and then work through the multiple caution periods and constant shuffling to finish 15th at Daytona International Speedway.
"He's going to be a great team player. I would say that I was surprised a bit with his performance, but I was also confident when we brought Sam in to be in our third car."
Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 champion and the only three-time champion of the IndyCar Series, is making the move to stock car racing full-time this year, and had just two Sprint Cup Series races to his credit before yesterday.
He weathered a tap in traffic from Elliott Sadler, and then with just over 20 laps left in the race, had two-time defending Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson get loose in front of him on the backstretch.
Hornish clipped the rear corner of Johnson's car, but maintained his line and cleared the chaos as Johnson spun out into the infield apron, and took Martin Truex Jr. with him.
"Sam did an excellent job today," said Busch, a former series champion. "There was a point where he was my shadow today. Wherever I went, he went, and that's the way we want it to work as teammates. He still has a lot to learn, but he is a three-time IRL champion, and his learning curve is like riding an escalator."
"I'm about as happy as I can be with a 15th place finish here," Hornish said. "I want to win every time we go out there, but we came in to this race with a goal of making the top 20, and being happy with that. We not only did that, but we saw a teammate win, and that was great."
Hornish, who started alongside three-time Daytona 500 winner Dale Jarrett, was running 10th with just 50 laps left in the race. A series of late caution periods shuffled the Defiance native back as deep as 20th in the field, before he worked back to 15th.
"We were just trying to learn and make the car better every time we had a pit stop," Hornish said. "It's a big thing for me to just try and learn more and more each time we go out there. I tried to just be smart and not get ourselves into too many problems."
Hornish said seeing his Penske teammates finish 1-2 in the race, and watching Newman celebrate in Victory Lane, gives him a positive feeling about the season ahead.
"I'm stoked. This is a big puzzle that we're trying to put together here and put all of the right people in the right places," Hornish said.
"We're just moving forward and trying to do the best that we can. As far as the team as a whole, to have two veteran drivers finish first and second in the Daytona 500 and a rookie driver finish in the top 15, I feel pretty happy about that and I know that Roger does too."