Briefly, it appeared as if Sam Hornish Jr. might pull the Pennsylvania 500 out of his hat. Or helmet.
When all the leaders pitted late in the season’s Pocono Raceway event, Hornish’s Dodge remained on the track. Then it began raining. Had the rain not dissipated, Hornish would have won for the first time at NASCAR’s highest level.
It didn’t happen. Hornish yielded the lead to Greg Biffle, who ran away from the field in the final laps. Without the benefit of having pitted for fresh tires, Hornish slumped to an 11th-place finish.
Hornish’s career best was a fourth-place finish at Pocono on Aug. 3, 2009.
A native of Defiance, Ohio, Hornish switched full-time to NASCAR in 2008 after winning two Indy Racing League championships and the 2006 Indianapolis 500. The Sprint Cup going has been tough. Hornish finished 35th in the 2008 point standings and was 28th in ‘09. Through 21 races this year, he ranks 27th.
"I feel like some of that is due to me," Hornish said. "I feel like some of that is just the transition from the old car to the new (NASCAR chassis design) and how the team did it.
"We’ve had highs and lows. We go out there and lead laps, go out there and finish fourth. ... I feel like we can do it, it’s just how do we get a little more luck on our side. We have to take our bad days and make them a 20th. Thirty-fifth-place bad days are what kill us," he said.
Before the season began, Hornish answered questions about the NASCAR experiment of another prominent IRL driver, Danica Patrick. Speaking from the perspective of someone who knew, Hornish said, "I’m sure she’s not going to have any problems dealing with the media.
Racing out there on the track is a different thing. Running against 42 other cars ... I wish her well."
The Sprint Cup Series represents the big leagues of American racing. "Nobody’s going the other way," Hornish said, referring to the IRL. Though his strategy didn’t quite work, Hornish had one of his better, if disappointing, days at Pocono.
"We’ve been playing catch-up," he said, "and we want to get to the point where people play catch-up to us."
Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for the Gaston Gazette in North Carolina since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog, http://nascar.rbma.com, features his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Dutton at firstname.lastname@example.org.