Hornish still earning NASCAR respect
CONCORD, N.C. -- Sam Hornish Jr. is at the back of the NASCAR hauler signing in for Sunday's Coca-Coca 600. He has no handler, no entourage. Except for two fans who ask for autographs, he goes through the Sprint Cup garage with little fanfare, particularly for a driver who has won three Indy Racing League titles and the Indianapolis 500.
In this world he's not a star.
That's not a slam on Hornish. It's reality.
As impressive as Hornish's credentials were in the IRL -- 19 wins and 27 other podium finishes in 116 races are more than impressive -- he's done nothing in a stock car to earn fanfare or even respect.
In 84 races the 30-year-old Penske Racing driver has two top-5s and seven top-10s. He's led only six laps, failed to finish 13 times and failed to qualify eight times.
Compared to what he did in open wheel he might as well be invisible.
"When you see Sam Hornish walk through the garage area and when you hear the name, that's an Indy 500 winner," Kyle Petty said. "There's a lot of respect there from all forms of motorsports.
When you see Sam Hornish walk through the garage area and when you hear the name, that's an Indy 500 winner. There's a lot of respect there from all forms of motorsports. But you put that guy in a stock car and you've got to go there and kick his butt, you've got no respect.” -- Kyle Petty
"But you put that guy in a stock car and you've got to go there and kick his butt, you've got no respect. It's what you did for me lately and what you did last week. He's got tons of respect from the other drivers for what he did in Indy cars. On the racetrack, no."
That's OK with Hornish. He understands his résumé since arriving in NASCAR -- shortly after wrapping up his third IRL championship by a tiebreaker over defending champion Dan Wheldon in 2006 -- is average at best.
But this is where Hornish wants to be. This is the challenge he wanted and needed in his life when he made the fulltime jump to Sprint Cup in 2008. Give him the choice between driving in the Coca-Cola 600 and Indianapolis 500 on Sunday and he'll take the 600 every time. Offer $20 million to win both races on the same day and he'll say he'd rather watch the 500 on television.
"I don't need the attention," Hornish said. "I love the fans that I do have over here. I drive a race car and live in the limelight because that's part of being a racecar driver, but I don't need it. I like when I can go home and be normal Sam.
"Sometimes it's more fun when people don't know me. You get to see what people might say or how they react. I just enjoy being normal Sam."
Hornish is anything but normal even if a stock car has made it look that way. You have to remember he entered NASCAR at the same time as the Car of Tomorrow. Penske Racing with Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman as a whole struggled with the car. Hornish didn't know who to go to for leadership and guidance.
Then Newman announced he was leaving and the economy took a plummet, which meant less financial support from Dodge. Everything was in a state of flux.
But Hornish hasn't forgotten how to drive.
"I know I can do it if I get the car underneath me and the right setup," Hornish said. "I just need to figure out how we can get that way more often."
Hornish had seven top-10s last season, two each at Pocono and Richmond. He's been fast in a lot of other races but too many times gets impatient and makes mistakes that one can only eliminate with experience.
"The toughest part is I'm not somebody who likes to collect a paycheck, go out there and be safe about it," Hornish said as he ate grapes in the back of his No. 77 hauler. "Sometimes I need to pull the reins back a little more."
That wasn't an issue in the IRL. Hornish knew he had top equipment and could win many days running 95 percent.
"This, if I run 95 percent I'm going to run 20th and 25th," Hornish said. "It's like I don't want to hit anything. I don't want to bend everything up and be on TV for doing it. But at the end of the day there is something in my brain that doesn't allow me to say, 'I'm OK with 25th. Screw that. Go for it.'"
Hornish went for it in NASCAR because he wanted to prove himself in the country's top form of motorsport. He says he likely wouldn't be in Indy cars even if this opportunity hadn't come along.
"I saw an opportunity to come over here and do this as opposed to some other people who just decided to do it one day," Hornish said.
For that he deserves respect. But does he get respect for what he did at Indianapolis in 2006?
"You have to have a great deal of respect for one another because NASCAR cars are very difficult to drive, and coming back the other way our cars are very difficult to drive for different reasons," said Dario Franchitti, who gave NASCAR a shot a few years ago. "The drivers in NASCAR understand that, and they realize the Indy 500 is one of the most difficult races in the world."
Helio Castroneves, who has won the 500 three times and is on the pole for Sunday's race, agreed.
"What they do over there is awesome, but I think they know how difficult it is to win the Indianapolis 500 and they respect you for that much," he said.
But is there overall respect? Felix Sabates, whose partner Chip Ganassi owns cars in both series, isn't so sure.
"They think we are good ol' boys and we think they are a bunch of sissies," Sabates said. "So it's wine and cheese over there and tough guys over here."
But Sabates agrees you have to respect Hornish for what he's accomplished outside of NASCAR.
"Anytime a guy wins a 500-mile race going 230 miles per hour you have to respect him," Sabates said. "Sam has done lot of wrecking and tore up cars over here, but he's won everything he's ever raced, so he'll be fine."
Mark Martin perhaps said it best.
"He gets respect for what he did over there, but he also has to earn the rest of it to fill the cup all the way," he said.
Hornish will be like a kid again Sunday. He'll arrive early at CMS to watch the Indy 500 with the enthusiasm he had growing up as a fan. Then he'll get to drive in the 600 and once again prove he belongs here.
And for the record, he's picking Castroneves.
"I accomplished more than I ever dreamed in Indy cars," Hornish said. "This gives me an opportunity to test myself and meet a lot of new people. No matter how it turns out in the end, it's not going to be a mistake."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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