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‘Sudden Sam’ Is Slammed Into Reverse

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 25 2011

Sam Hornish Jr. is going back a grade for the 2011 NASCAR season. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer

Charlotte, N.C. – Sam Hornish Jr. has won an Indianapolis 500 and three IndyCar championships. But the what-have-you-done-lately world of auto racing has placed Hornish in a miserable limbo just weeks from the start of the 2011 season.

After three difficult and frustrating years of trying to master the bigger, heavier NASCAR Sprint Cup cars, the 31-year-old Ohioan has been relegated, at least for the moment, to a part-time Nationwide Series schedule.

Hornish currently has sponsorship from Alliance Truck Parts to run a minimum of 11 Nationwide races in a Penske Racing Dodge. Roger Penske, the man who brought Hornish to NASCAR two years after  the driver won Indy and the IndyCar title for him in 2006, said he still hopes to fill out Hornish’s Nationwide schedule but has no plans to run him in Cup.

During a visit Monday night to the Penske Racing shop by the annual NASCAR Media Tour sponsored by Charlotte Motor Speedway, Penske said it was time for a change.

“I said to him, `Look, let’s step back here.’ It’s like being put back a grade in school,’’ Penske explained. “I know a lot of guys who were put back a grade in school and turned out to be pretty good guys.  He’s a proud guy, an Indianapolis 500 winner, probably one of the best oval series drivers I’ve ever seen.  … The good news is we’ve got a good sponsor and a good start.’’

Hornish said the hardest thing for him so far has been answering the questions from friends and family about what he’s going to do now.

“I’ve been racing professionally for 11 years now,’’ Hornish said.  “I didn’t get paid a lot at the beginning and I’m not getting paid a lot right now. But I tried to save everything I could. I didn’t have

Roger Penske will field partial Nationwide ride for Sam Hornish Jr. (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

a Ferrari or a bunch of expenses. I was engaged or married for most of it, so it wasn’t like I was out doing all these different things.

“The only reason I need to race right now is because I want to race.  I’m not in it to go out and collect a paycheck. I want to race and I want to give myself an opportunity to go out there and do the best that I can do.’’

But it’s obvious that the demotion on a team that will field Cup cars full-time for former Cup champion Kurt Busch and 26-year-old rising star Brad Keselowski is embarrassing and frustrating for Hornish.

He admitted as much when he told a story about attending a recent party put on by longtime Penske sponsor Marlboro to honor its drivers over the past two decades.

“We went there and they showed the replay of the (2006) 500 and I was like getting all emotional about it. Everybody said, `What do you think about that?’ I said, `Man, it’s pretty neat to be able to come out tonight and to see that and remember that you once did something after getting dirt kicked in your face for three years.

“That was nice. I kind of needed that at that point. That’s something they can’t take away from you.’’

When people ask Hornish what is going to happen next, he points out the trust he has in Penske.

“Roger says he’s got something for me to do and he knows I’m going to work hard at it,’’ Hornish noted.  “I’ve never had to worry. When Roger told me he’s going to do something, he did it. So there’s no reason for me to ever doubt it.’’

Penske even encouraged Hornish to talk with other Cup teams about possible opportunities for 2011.

Sam Hornish Jr. will always have Indy '06. (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR)

“We talked to some other teams,’’ Hornish said. “There wasn’t anything else out there where I could actually go out there and race. There were other teams that were interested and didn’t have the funding to do it, so I waited. This is my eighth season with Penske Racing. I think a lot of people would kill to have eight days with Roger, so I’m continuing to work with him in the future.’’

Penske, the most successful team owner in American open-wheel racing, still runs an elite three-car team in the IZOD IndyCar Series, and Hornish could have other opportunities to return to the open-cockpit cars. But he’s going to stick around NASCAR and hope things take a turn for the better.

“Racing’s all about who you know, who knows you,’’ he said. “It’s a politics game. So being around the racetrack, letting people see you, that’s always a good thing. … We’ve got a lot of potential with other sponsors that we’ve talked to and we’ve also got potential to make the Alliance program bigger as well. We’re planting seeds for the next couple of years to try to grow sponsors and get back to the Cup series and do all the things we want to do.

“I don’t know if I’d still be racing if I’d stayed in open wheel. I wanted to try this and I had an opportunity. It was something I wanted to try all the way from being a kid. There might be a second thought because you’re not where you want to be right now, but there’s never going to be any regret about it.’’

Media Tour Notes from Monday and Tuesday:

Moving forward: Roger Penske is upbeat despite failing to come up with enough sponsorship money to remain a three-car team in the Sprint Cup series.

“As we go to 2011, I feel a lot better,’’ Penske said. “The economy is better. The sponsors we have, some of them have been with us for more than 20 years and that continuity is important. We have been fortunate to have them stick with us in tough times.

“Making the Chase (with Kurt Busch) and having a competitive Nationwide car (with Brad Keselowski  giving Penske his first NASCAR championship) were important to me in 2010, and we did both.’’

Penske noted that, despite downsizing to two Cup cars, he not only didn’t take anything away from the team’s technical department, he actually “added additional engineering capability.’’

Penske fields the sole Dodge team in NASCAR and Dodge racing boss Ralph Gilles promised more technical support for 2011.

“We learned a lot last year,’’ Gilles said. “We’re going to have more resident engineering at the track and we learned to react sooner to the needs of the NASCAR team.’’

RCR  the team to beat? Richard Childress wouldn’t go as far as to guarantee one of his drivers will

Richard Childress and Kevin Harvick ready to topple Johnson? (File photo by Justin Heiman/Getty Images for NASCAR)

win the 2011 Sprint Cup title, but he did edge around it.

“We had a very good season in 2010, but the only guy who had a great season was Jimmie Johnson,’’ Childress said Tuesday during the media tour visit to his Welcome, N.C., racing shops.

“This is the year for RCR to put Jimmie Johnson off his throne. Jimmie has won five (championships) in a row, but nothing lasts forever and I just want to be there with an RCR car when it runs out.

“You just get a feeling and I’ve got that gut feeling. We’re going to throw everything at it,’’ Childress added.

During the tour stop, Childress was presented with a trophy for winning the Sporting News 2010 Car Owner of the Year Award, voted on by owners, drivers and crew chiefs.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, January 25 2011
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