AVONDALE, Ariz. — Roger Penske introduced Sam Hornish Jr. as his newest NASCAR driver exactly one year ago in a glitzy affair at one of Penske’s Scottsdale dealerships.
There’s been nothing glamorous about the year since, as Hornish has struggled through a rough rookie season. But as tough as it’s been, the three-time Indy Racing League champion insisted Friday he has no plans to follow Dario Franchitti back to open-wheel.
Franchitti waived the flag on his NASCAR career this summer when his Sprint Cup Series team folded because of a lack of sponsorship, and whispers began shortly after that Hornish also would return to IRL.
“I think all of that is basically untrue,” Hornish said at Phoenix International Raceway, where he made his Cup Series debut last season. “I don’t know where we got off on the wrong foot there, but it all started basically when Dario decided to go and run Indy cars and then all the questions started coming on what I was going to do.
“But I’m focused on running here, and I’m focused on trying to be the best Sprint Cup driver I can be. I came over because I wanted the challenge of doing this. I wanted to see it out. I wanted to get to the point where I felt like I could win races.”
Hornish, one of the most successful American drivers in open-wheel history, isn’t close to winning races yet in NASCAR. He had a successful season debut with a 15th-place finish in the Daytona 500, but it’s been all downhill since.
The No. 77 Dodge fell out of the top 35 in points, forcing Hornish to qualify his car on speed each week, and he failed to make the cut last month at Talladega. A 13th-place finish at Charlotte in May was his best showing of the season, and he’s led only two laps all year.
It’s a far cry from his open-wheel days, when Hornish won the 2006 Indianapolis 500 and 18 other races in 116 starts. But he and Penske felt Hornish had accomplished all he could in the IRL, and NASCAR offered a fresh change. It didn’t hurt that Penske needed a driver as he expanded his NASCAR team to three cars.
The transition wasn’t exactly smooth: Hornish failed to qualify for the first six Cup races he attempted, finally breaking through in this race last year. But he finished 30th at Phoenix and was 37th the next week at Homestead for an unimpressive two-race showing.
Seeing Hornish run at the back of the field is a bit strange, but he insisted he’s had his share of struggles during his career. After blazing to several wins as a youngster on dirt ovals, his father moved him up to asphalt road courses as a new challenge.
“The first five or six races, I didn’t finish on the lead lap and for go-kart sprint races, that’s saying something to not finish on the lead lap,” Hornish said. “Then when we got to the point to win there, we started doing the national stuff. It was always about moving up and doing something bigger. I’ve had a lot of struggles in my career, just didn’t have so many of them when I was running in the Indy cars.”
Hornish believes some of his struggles are related to driving for an expansion team instead of the established Nos. 2 or 12 that teammates Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman pilot. But he’s not giving up and said he’d be willing to step down into the Nationwide Series if he could get into a competitive ride that would accelerate his learning process.
“Nothing against the Indy car series, but I felt like I achieved more than I ever dreamed of doing over there,” he said. “And when I got an opportunity to come over here and see how different it was, exactly how much harder it could be. I feel like I learn something new every day, and I feel like there’s going to be a great amount of satisfaction if I get to the point where I feel like I can win.
“So I want to get to the point where I have that satisfaction. I don’t want to feel like I had to go back and do something just to be able to say that it was easy or I knew that I could go back over and win.”
Penske could have an open IRL seat next season, depending on how Helio Castroneves’ federal tax evasion charges are resolved. But Hornish said there’s been no discussion with Penske about that issue.
“We’ve talked limitedly about Helio’s situation, but never really talked anything about me coming back over there,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in his mind at all to have me go back over there. I think he’s invested a lot of time and money in seeing this through. I’ve invested a lot of time trying to see this through.
“It’s kind of a funny thing because if you look at from 2001 to 2006, all they wanted to talk about was when I was going to NASCAR. Now for the last year all everybody wanted to talk about was when I’m going back to Indy cars. I can’t win wherever I’m at. Everybody wants me to be somewhere, else I guess.”