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Published: 6/9/2008

Hornish finds NASCAR to be a real challenge

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>SCHEDULES</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SPORTS02" target="_blank "><b>MIS, Toledo Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway</b></a>
<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.nascar.com/" target="_blank "><b>NASCAR</b></a>
<br>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.mispeedway.com/" target="_blank "><b>Michigan International Speedway</b></a>
<img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>SCHEDULES</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?Category=SPORTS02" target="_blank "><b>MIS, Toledo Speedway, Flat Rock Speedway</b></a> <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.nascar.com/" target="_blank "><b>NASCAR</b></a> <br> <img src=http://www.toledoblade.com/assets/gif/weblink_icon.gif> <b><font color=red>LINK</b></font color=red>: <a href=" http://www.mispeedway.com/" target="_blank "><b>Michigan International Speedway</b></a>
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BROOKLYN, Mich. A lot of people tried to tell Sam Hornish Jr. what this year would be like. He was leaving his familiar, comfortable seat in an open-wheel Indy-style race car, and pulling back the netting so he could climb through the window into a stock car.

True, it was still just racing. But outside of the colorful jumpsuits and the odor of burned rubber, the similarities between the two formats essentially ceased.

It was like Hornish, the only three-time champion of the IndyCar Series, was dismounting a sleek thoroughbred like Big Brown, and strapping himself onto a bucking bronco named Big Nasty in the center ring at the Calgary Stampede.

It was like he had been matching wits across the chessboard with Boris Spassky, and then stepping onto the canvas to wrestle Hulk Hogan. Or it was like he had been working as a neurosurgeon for all these years, and then someone handed him a cutting torch.

Michigan International Speedway President Roger Curtis takes us on a 125-mph tour of the track in Brooklyn, Michigan.

Yeah, it was kind of like that.

Or it was like the Super Bowl winning quarterback suddenly lining up at tight end, or the best from the Bolshoi Ballet suddenly jumping off stage into a swirling mosh pit.

It's like the difference between a tennis ball and a 16-pound bowling ball, said Tony Stewart about the stark contrast between the two racing disciplines. As a two-time season champion in the Sprint Cup Series who also won the 1997 Indy Racing League crown, Stewart was familiar with the road Hornish faced.

It s so different very little of what you learned or know about driving an Indy car is of much value over here, Hornish said this weekend from Pocono, where he finished 42nd in the Pocono 500. It s still racing, but so much of everything else is different that you are essentially starting over.

Hornish, who comes to Michigan International Speedway here this weekend for the Sprint Cup Series Lifelock 400, readily admits that the transition from one series to another is a painstaking process that will take years, even for one of the best open-wheel drivers in the world.

The learning curve over here is huge, the Defiance native said. It was a tough decision to leave the IndyCar Series, but once I did, my focus has been on getting better in the stock car every day. It s taken patience, focus, and a long-term commitment, because there is just so much to learn.

The lumbering 3,450-pound stock car with its 850 horsepower has an altogether different feel than the sleek 1,525-pound Indy car pushed by 670 horsepower. The stock cars bump and bang each other as a matter of course, while the slightest contact can destroy the Indy car s precise tuning.

Hornish had a guaranteed spot in the first five Cup races this year, thanks to team owner Roger Penske s savvy ploy of switching the points from the car of former series champion Kurt Busch over to new teammate Hornish. But Hornish has fared well enough to qualify when he had to, and has made the field for all 14 races this season, with a best-finish of 13th in the Coca-Cola 600.

I m pretty happy with where we re at, but I feel like we should be a little ahead of that, Hornish said. We ve had some good races, but we ve had some bad ones, too. If you take away a couple of those problems we ran into, we re probably in the top 25 in points right now, but we just need to continue to move forward, keep ourselves in races, and continue to head in the right direction.

Hornish, who sat on the pole and finished second in an ARCA/REMAX Series race at MIS last year, has earned the respect of his peers, the stock car veterans like 2003 Sprint Cup Series champion Matt Kenseth.

It s just so different in stock cars than the kind of racing the open-wheel guys are used to in the IRL, Kenseth said. Besides the big differences in the cars, they d have races with 19 cars spread out on a big track over there, and in NASCAR you ll see 43 cars on a half-mile like Bristol. Sam has made the adjustment pretty well. We ve seen flashes of brilliance from him, and there s also times when he s struggled at this.

Hornish said his credentials on the stock car side will come.

I ll keep working at it, and I think the better we do, the more we can get up there and run with those guys, then the more respect we can earn, he said.

I m not frustrated or discouraged. There s a lot of easier things I could have chosen to do, but I chose to race stock cars because I liked the challenge it presented. It hasn t disappointed me in terms of presenting a challenge, but I m confident I m going to figure this out.

Contact Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6510.



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