- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Sam Hornish Jr. might have a long way to go to learn what it will take to win in NASCAR, but he covered a lot of ground in a hurry in the Daytona 500.
Making just his third Sprint Cup start -- and his first on a superspeedway -- Hornish was overshadowed by teammates Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch, who blew past Tony Stewart on the last lap to finish first and second.
Overshadowed doesn't mean overlooked, however.
Team owner Roger Penske, who helped convince Hornish last year that it was time for the former IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 winner to make the full-time move to NASCAR, couldn't say enough about Hornish's 15th-place performance.
"He drove a masterful race; he was working with the teammates [to learn from them]. I think he's going to be a real great team player here," Penske said. "To finish 15th in his first race and stay out of trouble, I was amazed and I know the team was excited.
"You've got to take a chance [developing drivers]. We started with Ryan and what we called an 'A-B-C' program -- ARCA, Busch and Cup -- and we're sitting here at the Daytona 500 victory table. I hope we do the same with Sam someday."
If that day arrives, Hornish will be happier than he was after Sunday's race.
For now, though, it wasn't bad. He finished 31st in his only restrictor-plate race in what is now the Nationwide Series here last February, so this was a huge step in the right direction.
"I'm about as happy as I can be with a 15th-place finish. I want to win every time we go out there, not to be disappointed about it," Hornish said. "We came in with a goal that if we were in the top 20, we would be happy with that. Not only were we able to do that but we were able to see one of our teammates win, so that was great."
Crew chief Chris Carrier was ecstatic with how the race went. Carrier joined the team after a stint at Morgan-McClure Motorsports, which has shut down because of a lack of sponsorship.
At the time, the Penske Racing camp said it felt Carrier had the right personality to guide a rookie. Carrier jokingly asked after the race where the rookie was that he's supposed to be working with.
"Sam was great this week. I can't say enough about him. I really think somebody has lied to me here because they told me I had a rookie and I don't believe I've got a rookie," Carrier said. "But all jokes aside, Sam is a great individual. He's very calm. He doesn't say a whole lot. He's very quiet. And to me that shows confidence and inner strength.
"There's not an arrogant bone in his body, but on top of that, down deep, there is a fierce competitor. Roger has told me all week that 'You're going to have to keep a leash on him.' And we did that. Man, he did a good job. We got fouled up in the pits a couple times. We apparently had a loose wheel right there, a pretty strange situation at the first of the race, and kind of got us out of sync."
Hornish's one rookie moment came when he got together with two-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson and Johnson went spinning.
I'm about as happy as I can be with a 15th-place finish. I want to win every time we go out there, not to be disappointed about it.
-- Sam Hornish
"[Johnson] was stuck in the middle and I got down on the bottom and I was trying real hard not to get into him. I don't know if he came down a little bit or I came up; just not enough room there," Hornish said. "I feel really bad about it if it was my fault. I'll go talk to Jimmie about it and apologize. Even if it wasn't my fault, [his spin was] still off the front of my car. I'm trying to learn as much as I can and get as much out of it while I do that."
Hornish was guaranteed a spot in the field by virtue of the points transfer made by Penske Racing, giving Hornish the owners' points Kurt Busch earned last year. So the biggest win in Carrier's eyes might have to do with the team's long-term success this season.
"One thing that a lot of people lose focus on is the first five races. You gain points for the sixth race, and the ones that are solidly in the top 35 after the first five races are the guys that don't have to worry about qualifying their way in at Martinsville," Carrier said. "I'm well aware of that. I've been in that swamp for about three years [with Morgan-McClure], and it's no fun. This is a good start on it; when you have a good finish the first race, it gives you a little boost."
The only other rookies in the field wish they could say the same thing, as Dario Franchitti finished 33rd, the first driver a lap down, and Regan Smith was 37th after contact with the wall on Lap 131 damaged his Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet. Smith finished six laps off the pace.
"What we did was we were very conservative to start with and it went green for so long," Franchitti said. "When I got in a pack, I was so loose I really couldn't hang on, so we've got to work on that.
"We finished, that's about all I can say. A great effort from my guys, but I definitely got to work on some stuff. We're going to do better next time."
If Hornish does the same, Penske Racing might have even more to celebrate than it already did at the end of the Daytona 500.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
5dBob Pockrass and John Oreovicz