Sam Hornish Jr.: "It feels pretty good" to be back in Cup

Sam Hornish Jr. chats one-on-one with Rebecca Kivak
Credit: Karel Zubris for Skirts and Scuffs
In between Friday’s practice sessions at Pocono Raceway, Sam Hornish Jr. couldn’t stop smiling.

Standing in the No. 38 hauler of Front Row Motorsports, Hornish was preparing for Sunday’s 5-Hour Energy 500, his first Sprint Cup start of the season. It was clear the three-time IndyCar champion couldn’t be more excited to be back in NASCAR’s top series.

“It feels pretty good,” Hornish said. “I’ve definitely missed it.”

Hornish lost his Cup ride at Penske Racing at the end of last season, when the No. 77 team was dismantled after sponsorship couldn’t be found.

The opportunity to drive the No. 38 Ford came Hornish’s way because Front Row driver Travis Kvapil was set to run the Camping World Truck Series race at Texas on Friday night.

Throw in that Sunday’s Cup race is at Pocono – a track Hornish has found success at where some of the series’ best have struggled – and Hornish was in.

“Pocono is one of my favorite tracks, so obviously when they asked me if I’d be interested in doing this, I jumped right on board,” Hornish said.

In six Cup starts at the 2.5-mile track, Hornish has four top-11 finishes, including one top 5. Last year he led 25 laps between the two Pocono races, and was a contender for the win in the August event when he took the lead before a rain delay late in the race.

As for what it is about Pocono that clicks for Hornish, he has a few theories.

“I think that there’s a lot of guys that don’t like coming here, so they’ve already got this negative opinion about it. Their attitude is probably not in the right place,” Hornish said.

“What I really like to think it is, is that this track is about compromise because all three corners are different,” he said. “A lot of times you have to throw one of the corners out, and try to make yourself the best that you can be in the other two … I feel like I do that pretty good.”

Hornish started racing at Pocono after NASCAR abolished the previous rule that allowed shifting at the track. Now with a new gear rule in place, Hornish considers shifting essential to finding optimal speed at the superspeedway.

“The shifting is a lot different than what we’ve had in the past. You could do a little bit of shifting here in the past with the way that the gear rule was, but now, if you’re not shifting, you’re not going to be fast,” Hornish said.

The deal with Front Row Motorsports also marks a unique milestone for Hornish: for the first time in his NASCAR career, he won’t be behind the wheel of a Dodge. After driving the No. 38 Ford in Friday's first practice session, Hornish said it went well considering how fast the deal came together.

“It’s a team that I haven’t worked with in the past, so it’s still a little bit of building relationships and trying to figure out where we’re at and what we need to do better,” Hornish said.

As for whether the opportunity will lead to more Cup races with Front Row Motorsports, Hornish said there were some possibilities where Kvapil’s Truck Series schedule overlaps with the Cup races, but he was realistic in his expectations.

“I think that we’re just going to have to wait and see how the rest of this weekend goes,” he said.

Hornish also explained that although he wants to run more races in the Cup Series, he’s still an employee of Penske Racing and would need their approval for any offers that may come. However, he doesn’t think Penske would stand in his way.

“It’s a little bit different than I’ve had in the past, but they’ve (Penske) been pretty good to me … so I don’t see them saying that I can’t do something unless they need me to do something else.”

Since his Cup team was dissolved, Hornish has run five races in a limited schedule for Penske in the Nationwide Series. He has finished 16th or better in four of those races, including one top 10. He returns to the series next weekend at Michigan, which the Defiance, Ohio, native considers his home track, and is scheduled to compete at Nashville, Chicagoland, Phoenix and Miami, all tracks he said he really likes.

“There’s going to be some work here and there to do, but I’m definitely not busy enough,” Hornish said.

Hornish will start 26th in the 5-Hour Energy 500 Sprint Cup race at Pocono on Sunday.

Indy 500 thoughts

Hornish won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006, so I was curious if he had watched the Indy 500 with its incredibly dramatic finish.

“It was pretty heartbreaking for me to see something like that happen,” Hornish said, referring to when rookie JR Hildebrand hit the wall on the last lap and was passed by Dan Wheldon for the win. “You don’t get opportunities like that too often.”

Hornish drove for Panther Racing when he started out in IndyCar, and he still felt an allegiance to some of his former teammates.

“I was kind of pulling for them since it would have been a win for a lot of guys that I used to work with, but it didn’t work out for them,” he said.
Sam Hornish Jr.: "It feels pretty good" to be back in Cup Sam Hornish Jr.: "It feels pretty good" to be back in Cup Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Saturday, June 11, 2011 Rating: 5