WATKINS GLEN, N.Y. – Sam Hornish Jr. continued to turn heads today here at Watkins Glen International, bringing the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge home fifth in today’s Finger Lakes 355k NASCAR Sprint Cup battle after finishing a strong third in yesterday’s Nationwide Series race. Hornish started today’s race in the 17th spot and was a staple among the top 10 during the majority of today’s 90-lap race on the winding 2.45-mile road course.
“A really good day for the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge,” Hornish said of his No. 22 Penske Racing Team’s performance. “I thought that we had a great car, great strategy and it all worked out today. This is a tough place. It was real hard racing with a bunch of fast cars and our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge was fast. We had to come a long way from the back (17th) to start the race but I knew that the car was fast enough to make my way up through the pack. I just had to be patient and not wear the car out before the end of the race.”
Just as he did in yesterday’s Nationwide Series battle where he picked up his first career NASCAR pole position, Hornish was patient and made sure he saved the best for the end of the race.
“Yep…I probably ran about 95 percent most of the day knowing that I needed a fast car late in the day to have a shot at a top-10 or better,” he said. “It was about five laps to go when I really put the hammer down and ran as hard as I could. I’m proud of this team. We continue to get better each week and that’s what you need at this level.”
Hornish, not particularly known for his road racing prowess in stock car competition, certainly made a statement here this weekend as to his potential in the NASCAR ranks. His third-place finish in yesterday’s Zippo 250 has him third in the Nationwide Series points, trailing leader Elliott Sadler by 24 points. Today’s result was his third career top-five finish in Cup competition. It was only his fifth start behind the wheel of the Todd Gordon-prepared Shell-Pennzoil Dodge.
“I’m proud of Sam,” crew chief Gordon said of his driver coming through with the team’s second top-five finish of the 2012 season. “We’re starting to get our stuff together and understand what Sam needs inside the race car. Sam did a heck of a job all weekend. The two Penske programs helped each other a lot this weekend. Our fuel mileage was great and that helped us in the end.”
Hornish started today’s race in the 17th spot. He fought tight handling conditions in the center of the turns – especially through the carousel – for much of the race. Making a steady charge to the front, he had climbed to 15th at Lap 29 on the restart after the first caution. He was up to 12th on Lap 40 and up as far as third before the second caution of the race flew on Lap 57 for Denny Hamlin’s blown engine and stalled car.
Several cars had already hit pit road and had the advantage to be up front for the ensuing return to green. Hornish missed getting that advantage by just one lap as he was scheduled to hit pit road the next lap after the yellow flag flew. The “Double-Deuce” Dodge was 10th on the Lap 62 restart and made progress for the remainder of the race.
Tony Stewart spun out of the final turn at the entrance to pit road to bring out the fourth caution flag on Lap 71. Hornish lined up eighth for the Lap 74 restart. Up front, Kyle Busch was able to make an inside move in Turn 1 to get under Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski for the lead. Keselowski was able to hold off Marcos Ambrose for second as the laps were winding down.
Today’s race came down to an exciting finish that fans will be talking about possibly forever. Busch appeared to be on the way to his second victory of the season, but things really got wild on the final lap. Several reports of oil being put down on the track by Bobby Labonte’s ailing Toyota were heard on scanners. Busch apparently hit the oil and got sideways, allowing Keselowski, Ambrose and others to get by.
Ambrose was able to slip and slide by Keselowski heading into the final turn and take the win by 0.571 seconds. Jimmie Johnson finished third, with Clint Bowyer fourth and Hornish fifth. Greg Biffle, Busch, Matt Kenseth, Regan Smith and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out today’s top-10 finishers.
Hornish’s efforts this season – and especially since he has been driving the No. 22 Sprint Cup car — have certainly caught teammate Keselowski’s eye.
“I mean, there’s no doubt, and we’ve talked about it, Roger (Penske) and I have even talked about it, he’s done a phenomenal job of growing as a driver,” Keselowksi said in his post-race media center interview. “I think running in both series has been huge for him. He’s got two good teams with the Nationwide and Cup efforts. I think he’s gaining a lot of confidence and starting to come into his own in a way. Certainly the question is if he can he have those performances on the ovals? That’s really what’s going to matter for him and his future. I’m sure he’d probably tell you the same. But his progress as of late has been something I’m proud to see. I hope that in some small way I’m a part of that in working with him. So that’s just great to see. It’s something that I think we all enjoy watching – a driver get the hang of this sport, especially a guy as kind and who has paid some dues like Sam has.”
The NASCAR Sprint Cup tour now moves on to Michigan International Speedway for next week’s Pure Michigan 400. Hornish will be pulling “double-duty” once again as he competes in Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race in Montreal and Sunday’s Cup race at MIS.
This weekend’s Michigan International Speedway action gets under way on Friday with practice set from 12 noon till 1:30 p.m. (live on ESPN2). Qualifying for all 43 starting positions is set for Friday at 3:40 p.m. (live on ESPN2 & MRN Radio). Saturday’s schedule calls for the final practice from 10:10 a.m. till 12:00 noon. Sunday’s Pure Michigan 400 (200 laps, 400 miles) on the 2.0-mile track in Michigan’s scenic Irish Hills region is scheduled to get the green flag at approximately 1:00 p.m. Race No. 23 of 36 points-paying events on the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule will feature live coverage by ESPN-TV and MRN Radio.