AVONDALE, Ariz. — Sam Hornish Jr. pumped his fist out the window, made a nice grab to catch the checkered flag and circled toward Victory Lane. He pulled up next to the trophy, climbed out of his car and had trouble getting the words out, his voice cracking as tears filled his eyes.
After everything Hornish had been through since switching to NASCAR, this victory four years in the making hit him with a flood of emotion.
One of the most accomplished American open-wheel drivers in history, Hornish took his first NASCAR victory by passing points leader Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and leading the final 61 laps at slippery Phoenix International Raceway on Saturday.
“There were many times where I shook my head and go ‘Why did I do this?’” Hornish said of his switch to NASCAR. “But I did know that I would always regret not trying it, so I’m just really, really excited that we were able to keep it going. It ranks right up there.”
Stenhouse took a big step toward the Nationwide season title when Elliott Sadler was taken out with 25 laps left on a bump from behind by Jason Leffler. The unfortunate incident leaves Stenhouse with a nearly insurmountable 41-point lead over Sadler heading into the season finale at Homestead next weekend.
The potentially series-deciding wreck nearly overshadowed Hornish’s win. Nearly.
A three-time IndyCar Series championship and the 2006 Indianapolis 500, Hornish switched to NASCAR full time in 2008. His road in stock cars has been checkered at best.
Hornish had a pair of top-five finishes in 2009, but not a whole lot of other success. He struggled in 2010 and was relegated to a part-time schedule on the Nationwide Series this season, earning four top-10s, including a season-best fifth at Chicago.
Hornish was plenty familiar with Phoenix.
He won two IndyCar races there, including his first a decade ago, and had made his first Sprint Cup and Nationwide starts at the mile oval. He even announced his intention to leave IndyCar at the track.
Even after PIR was repaved and reconfigured, Hornish was good again in the desert, starting fifth and staying near the front most of the way.
He made a rare pass on the outside on the new surface to overtake Stenhouse on a restart and was well ahead of Brad Keselowski, his Team Penske teammate, as he took the checkers for the first time in 141 career starts between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series.
Keselowski was second and Carl Edwards third.
“Man, that sure is great,” Keselowski said. “Sam has paid a lot of dues in NASCAR and it’s great to see him get some success out of it.”
Sadler paid some dues of his own, thanks to Leffler.
Running close to Leffler heading into turn 1, he dropped down almost to the apron on the dogleg before shooting back up the track in front of Leffler, who was racing next to polesitter Aric Almirola.
Leffler misjudged Sadler’s speed and bumped him from behind, sending his car careening into the wall. Sadler bounced off backward and took out both Leffler and Almirola, leaving a trail of debris across the track that brought out the red flag.
“I was racing Aric and I just made a mistake. It’s all my fault,” Leffler said. “It certainly wasn’t anything I wanted to do to Elliott and his guys and affect the championship like that.”
Sadler got out of the car and raised his arms at Leffler as he yelled something, then gave a sarcastic clap as he continued talking while walking away. He was still fuming after being checked out at the medical center.
Stenhouse finished fifth and Sadler likely will need him to wreck early at Homestead to have a shot at the title.
“Not much respect for guys running for the championship,” Sadler said. “He just hit us square in the rear and lost it. I don’t understand. He’s not running for anything.”
The first repaving in 20 years at PIR left the track slick and with one good racing line, on the inside. The drivers were wary of racing the undeveloped outside line, where it was extra slippery and anyone out there would have trouble controlling their car to keep up with those on the inside.
Their concerns became reality before the first lap was done, when Reed Sorenson got into the back of Brian Scott in turn 3 and triggered an eight-car wreck.
Danica Patrick was collected in the crash and slammed the back of her car into the wall. She was able to return to the track, but six other cars were knocked out.
The longer the race went, though, the more the outside line seemed to come in.
Hornish made the final pass for the lead from the outside, overtaking Stenhouse when he appeared to spin his wheels on the green flag.
Hornish spun his wheels on the restart with 19 laps left after Sadler’s wreck, but recovered to stay in front of Keselowski and win in his 32nd Nationwide start.
“I won so much over at Indy that I didn’t know how much to appreciate it at the time,” Hornish said.
He certainly appreciated this one.