<
>

Big win in Texas vaults Hornish back in contention

Sam Hornish Jr. is known as a fairly quiet fellow whose on-track achievements in the IndyCar Series speak volumes.

But for most of 2007, the three-time series champion's results haven't been up to his usual high standard. After a third-place finish in the opener at Homestead-Miami Speedway, Hornish didn't earn a trip to the podium in five consecutive races.

That all changed at Texas Motor Speedway, where the 27-year-old Ohioan won for the third time in his IndyCar Series career. And this wasn't a typical Texas victory; instead of winning by a few thousandths of a second over a tight pack of cars, Hornish pulled out a 9-second lead before a late caution allowed Andretti Green Racing teammates Tony Kanaan and Danica Patrick to make the finish a bit more entertaining for the fans.

TK and Danica might have gotten close, but there was no way they were going to get past the No. 6 Team Penske machine. Aside from being a record-extending 19th IndyCar Series race win for Hornish, it vaulted him back into championship contention, 27 points behind leader Dario Franchitti.

"I wouldn't say we've had bad luck this year," Hornish said. "We just haven't had any good things happen. We should have been in the top three in every race so far this year and with that, we'd be leading the points.

"If those are the only problems that we have all year, I think we are going to be able to rebound and make a run for the championship."

The problems Hornish has suffered this year haven't been significant enough to force him out of any race, and his worst result is a ninth-place finish at Milwaukee. But he and the Penske team still are left wondering what might have been had a faulty gauge not led to Hornish running out of fuel in Japan, or had collapsing rear-wing struts not cost him the runner-up position at Milwaukee.

The way Hornish was able to pull away from the field in Texas was reminiscent of some of his crushing performances when he made his name in the sport driving for Panther Racing from 2001-03. At Kentucky Speedway that year, he almost lapped the field, and one got the impression that had the Texas '07 race gone green to the finish, it would have been a similar story.

It was by far Penske's most impressive performance of the season after the team's cars were curiously off the pace on 1.5-mile speedways like Homestead and Kansas. Prior to the 159 laps he led at Texas, Hornish had paced only five laps all year long -- a situation that baffled him.

"We felt really good about the race going into Kansas and we thought we were going to have a day like we did tonight," Hornish said. "But when we got out there in the middle of the race, we were all over the place and we couldn't do anything with it.

"We were cautiously optimistic [at Texas] because we felt like we had a really good car that was capable of winning, but until the first couple laps of the race went by, we weren't sure how good it was or if it would be good enough," he added. "It was strong all night long."

With three series championships and an Indianapolis 500 trophy under his belt, Hornish has fewer and fewer things to accomplish in IndyCars, and Roger Penske appears to be paving the way for his most recent open-wheel champion to make the transition into full-time stock-car racing. Hornish said that winning his 20th IndyCar race will be special -- especially if it leads to a fourth IRL title.

"[No. 20] will be pretty big," Hornish revealed. "For a while there last year, I thought that I might have an opportunity to get there before I got to 100 [starts] to make it 20 percent. (Hornish has competed in 106 IndyCar races).

"It's been unbelievable," he continued. "If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would have won one IndyCar race, rather than 19 of them, I would have [said] you were crazy. A lot of times I don't feel that I deserve it, but for whatever reason I feel that I've been very blessed and look forward to the next race, because I know there's that next opportunity."

The next couple of chances will come on bullrings -- June 24 at the new Iowa Speedway, then six days later at Richmond International Raceway, where Hornish is the defending race champion.

"Getting number 20 would be great, either going to a new track or going to a place like Richmond where we've had so much success in the past," he said. "It would be great to get it pretty soon."

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for National Speed Sport News and ESPN.com.