Commentary

2006 Indy 500 winner Hornish hoping to rebound at the Brickyard

The last time we saw Sam Hornish Jr. smiling at the Brickyard he was kissing bricks following his 2006 Indy 500 win. This week at Indy, as he prepares for his first Cup race at the famed racetrack, Hornish is just hoping to save his season, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: July 25, 2008, 12:39 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

Sam HornishAP Photo/AJ MastSam Hornish Jr. couldn't peel himself off the bricks after winning the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

Sam Hornish Jr. will not ride down the frontstretch on the old Brickyard in a chariot, pulled by a white horse and waving to the masses while crew members throw flowers on the pavement in front of him.

Hornish is not the conquering hero returning home. He had no illusions of it being that way when he left his lofty status in the IndyCar Series to test his skills in NASCAR.

"I knew it was going to be very difficult," Hornish said. "Regardless of the on-track stuff, just the opportunity to be back in Indianapolis should be really fun."

At least Hornish has a chance to return to the place of his glorious moment as the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner. Dario Franchitti doesn't have that luxury.

The 2007 Indy 500 winner, who made the jump to Sprint Cup with Hornish this season, is looking for work. No sponsor stepped up to foot the bill for Franchitti's Cup ride, so team owner Chip Ganassi was forced to shut down the operation on the No. 40 Dodge four weeks ago.

"I definitely feel bad for him," Hornish said of Franchitti. "He made a decision to come over here and to run and to make the most of it. And when you don't get to finish it's not a fun thing for yourself or anybody around you."

Things haven't been a lot of fun for Hornish this season, either. The three-time IndyCar Series champion is just another newbie in Cup, trying to learn the intricacies of racing a stock car while competing against the best in the business.

Hornish ranks 33rd in the standings and hasn't posted a top-10 in the No. 77 Dodge for Penske Racing. Hornish has finished 25th or worse in 13 of 19 races. But he insists he has no regrets about his decision to leave open-wheel racing.

The track holds so much prestige. For a rookie that's never been here, you could easily get overwhelmed by it. But having run the Indy 500 before, you already know what to expect and mentally you can handle the importance of racing across the bricks.

-- Juan Pablo Montoya

"Everyone keeps asking me if I'm upset about it," Hornish said. "I made the decisions on my own accord and it didn't have anything to do with anyone else. I felt I wasn't being challenged anymore in IndyCar. It was time for me to try something different.

"It is what it is. I'm not saying I'll never run an IndyCar race again. Who knows? I could get fired tomorrow and need a job. But I'm not through with trying to get what we want to get out of this, and that's to win."

Ironically, his best finish this season came on the day he would have raced in the Indy 500 had he stayed in IndyCar. Hornish was 13th in the Coca-Cola 600 at Lowe's Motor Speedway, one of only two finishes in the top 15.

"I feel like we've been on a roller coaster," Hornish said. "But we've had a lot of lows and we're kind of waiting for it to go back up."

Maybe this is the week. Hornish has a good reason to be hopeful. Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indy 500 winner who also raced at Indy in Formula One, was in a similar position last year.

Montoya, the only man to race in all three events at Indy, finished a surprising second in his first NASCAR event at the Brickyard.

"When I raced [at Indy] last year, I honestly didn't remember that much about the track itself," Montoya said. "So, I don't think I had a racing advantage over any other rookie. You have to remember that in Formula One we ran the course backwards, so that completely erases anything I may have learned from the Indy 500."

Montoya entered the 2007 Allstate 400 in a much better position than Hornish is in now. Montoya ranked 20th in the standings with three top-10s, including a victory on the Sonoma road course.

He also was driving a completely different car. Sunday's race is the first at Indy in the Car of Tomorrow model.

Nevertheless, Hornish takes comfort in what Montoya did at Indy last year.

"I would feel better about if we had tested at Indy," Hornish said. "But anytime you can watch someone who has a similar background have that kind of success [that Montoya had], it keeps you very optimistic about what your opportunities might be."

Hornish and Montoya are the only Indy 500 winners in the race, but the event could have four other drivers who have competed in the Indy 500. Two-time Allstate 400 winner Tony Stewart and Robby Gordon have guaranteed spots. Patrick Carpentier and J.J. Yeley will need to qualify on speed.

Yeley finished a respectable ninth in the 1998 Indy 500, his only start in the event. He has competed in the past two Allstate 400s, but his best finish was 34th in 2006.

Gordon is one of three men (along with Stewart and John Andretti) to do the double of racing in the Indy 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 on the same day. He has three top-5 finishes in 10 Indy 500 starts. He has two top-10s in eight Allstate 400 starts.

Carpentier hopes to race in the Allstate 400 for the first time. He finished 21st in his only Indy 500 start in 2005.

Montoya said nothing transfers as far as on-track racing between Indy cars and stock cars, but he does think rookies Hornish and Carpentier will benefit from knowing what's it's like to race in front of 250,000 people at the Brickyard.

"If they have any advantage over another rookie here, it's a mental advantage," Montoya said. "The track holds so much prestige. For a rookie that's never been here, you could easily get overwhelmed by it. But having run the Indy 500 before, you already know what to expect and mentally you can handle the importance of racing across the bricks."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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