- Marty Smith, NASCAR
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Sam Hornish Jr. was at the beach. His wife, Crystal, was there, and his little girl, Addison, too. He spent the previous day testing, and just wanted a bit of rare family time. And there he was, on the phone with a random reporter answering questions about an uncertain racing future and a keen narration of the "Roary the Racing Car" series on the PBS Kids Sprout television channel.
"When they asked me if I was interested, I thought, 'It would be my one chance to do something Stirling Moss did,'" Hornish laughed as he spoke. "My daughter hasn't figured it out yet that it's me."
Moss is the British Formula One legend, who considered by some the greatest driver in motorsports history, despite never winning a championship. He was knighted by Prince Charles in 2000, and narrates the British version of Roary.
Hornish may not be considered the greatest ever, but for a six-year span he was absolutely the man to beat in the IndyCar Series. He wasn't untouchable, but he was close.
The accolades are astounding. He has three IndyCar championships in six seasons, the last of which marked Roger Penske's 12th open-wheel title, albeit the legendary owner's first and only championship in the IndyCar Series since the team joined full time in 2002.
Since 1946, 10 drivers have won three or more open-wheel titles:
• Ted Horn -- AAA, 1946-48
• Jimmy Bryan -- AAA, 1954; USAC, 1956-57
• A.J. Foyt -- USAC, 1960-61, '63-64, '67, '75, '79
• Mario Andretti -- USAC, 1965-66, '69; CART, '84
• Al Unser Sr. -- USAC, 1970; CART, '83, '85
• Rick Mears -- CART, 1979, '81, '82
• Bobby Rahal -- CART, 1986-87, '92
• Sebastien Bourdais -- CART, 2004-07
• Sam Hornish Jr. -- IndyCar, 2001-02, '06
• Dario Franchitti -- IndyCar, 2007, '09-10
Where I come from, that ain't bad company.
Hornish won the 2006 Indianapolis 500, too. He has won 19 races in 116 career starts, for a winning percentage of 16 percent.
By comparison, Rick Mears' CART résumé boasts a 14 percent winning percentage. (I asked a scholarly open-wheel type if that comparison was even remotely functional. I am told it is fair, based on the equipment Mears drove in his era and the teams Hornish whooped during his.)
So, given all the Indy grandeur, what happened in NASCAR?
NASCAR fans haven't seen that talent. Hornish hasn't grasped fenders. In nearly three full Sprint Cup Series seasons, his improvement is obvious to those that pay close attention to in-race progression. Those who don't? Well, they wonder why he ever even tried.
That answer is quite simple.
"I don't know if I'd still want to do it," Hornish said. "I enjoyed IndyCar, and had a lot of fun running them. But there wasn't really that much more to accomplish over there, and if you don't have that drive when you wake up in the morning to make yourself better and to do something new, sometimes it gets old.
"And if you don't enjoy doing it, then you're not going to do it well. I'm going to keep racing as long as I get something out of it, and to do that I have to feel like I'm learning and making progress."
Hornish runs in the top 10 often -- he just can't stay there. He noted that NASCAR fields twice the competitors that open-wheel races do, and the races are twice as long. So basically, there's twice the opportunity for failure.
For Hornish, patience is hard to come by. Taking a car that handles like a school bus on Lap 100 and massaging it into at least a Hummer, takes precise feedback and a level head.
"You just can't force anything," he said. "A lot of it is learning that it comes to you as much as anything else. I think patience is a huge thing. And in IndyCar it's a different kind of patience. There's a lot to learn over here, and I've tried to adapt as well as I could. So I'm hoping I get the opportunity to continue to do it."
That's an issue right now. Hornish has no definitive home for 2011. When Penske Racing picked up the Shell/Pennzoil sponsorship for Kurt Busch's No. 22 Dodge, it stripped Hornish of a 20-race primary in Mobil 1, which is Pennzoil's chief competitor. As a result, the No. 77 is left with a gaping financial hole to fill. Hornish said they're funded for only 14 of 38 weekends.
"You can't commit to go into a full season that way, only having half the races, if that, taken care of," Hornish said. "So basically, we're trying to find sponsorship to continue in Cup."
"They asked me my preference," he said. "I told them my preference is to stay in Cup if I can, and they've given me the opportunity to go out and see if there's another ride out there somewhere else, so I can stay in Cup if another opportunity does present itself."
There are opportunities, but they are few in an unforgiving economy. For Hornish, there are no regrets.
"None. Not at all," he said. "I've said all along I don't know if I'd still be running Indy cars, even if I hadn't done this. This is the opportunity I wanted, to come over here and try to do this. I'm not giving up yet."
Aside from raising Jimmie Johnson's ire last fall at Texas, where Hornish wrecked the eventual champion to a 38th-place finish, he has done well to keep his nose clean where other competitors are concerned.
One of his peers, who understands well the difficulty of the crossover challenge, watched intently.
"I've never been on the same team as Sam, so I only have an outsider's point of view," said freshly crowned IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. "I think with an IndyCar, he can drive a car with a lot of over steer. But as we know, that is a much different feeling than driving a Sprint Cup car. I don't think there are many more fearless drivers out there than Sam. Watching as a fan of racing, the weekends that he and his team get it right -- it can be pretty impressive."
Franchitti would know. I asked him to describe for me the difference between NASCAR and IndyCar, and the first word that entered his mind was "different."
"Everything is just so different," he said in a text message. "Everything about it. The cars. The tracks. Even the way you enter the garage to work on the car. You have to learn so much, so fast."
As my conversation with Hornish concluded, I couldn't help but wonder if he was having any fun. He laughed. Hard. Harder than I realized he was capable of laughing.
"I could be having more fun," he said. "But, yeah, I'm having fun."
Who will be crew chief for Clint Bowyer during Shane Wilson's suspension?
-- James Carlisle, Santa Cruz, Calif.
Richard Childress Racing competition director Scott Miller will assume that role, James. Following the Brickyard 400, I was armed with a great question for Miller about the dominance of the Earnhardt-Childress engines and called him Gil Martin in a moment of brain fade. Sorry, Miller.
Santa Cruz, huh? Makes me think of the Thrasher magazines my buddies and I used to froth over back in the seventh grade Skate Or Die! days.
I wanna know why Cooter was never a NASCAR crew chief! Could've beat Tim Brewer and [Jeff] Hammond all over the track.
-- Joshua Iles, Oklahoma
Truth, Joshua. Ol' Cooter hooked the General Lee up. You don't just cut donuts on a whim, even on Hazzard's dirt roads. That takes some torque finagling. But could he hang with the sheer charisma my boys Brewer and Hammond spill forth? Cooter was a sly somebody, but he ain't a fox like those two.
I think NASCAR needs to tweak the inspection process. What say you? This is for The Six!
-- Mike Mitchell, Jacksonville, Fla.
Having spent an entire Tuesday planted outside the NASCAR R&D Center (great banter and fellowship with peers, by the way) and hearing Richard Childress say that he wouldn't have pursued it further had that day's format been used the previous week, I can't help but agree with him.
Why not use the appellate officer from the get-go, and let both sides speak their peace and move on down the highway? Remove that interim layer in which the team can't get answers. Both sides should be able to get answers on all levels. So yes, Michael, I believe a revision is plausible.
"Blame it on Waylon" just might be the best song since "Friends in Low Places." Opinion?
-- Buddy Obery, no clue where Buddy lives
That's a stretch, Buddy. I love me some Josh Thompson. "Blame it on Waylon" is elite, but there are more than a handful of songs I'd put before it. I doubt Josh would disagree. Have y'all heard "Hearthache" by Jamey Johnson? Son Genius
Trust me. Wait until you hear Eric Church's next record. It's going to change the industry.
Besides EVERYTHING, what concerns should the Lions be focusing on?
-- Tony Powers, resident DJ in Michigan
First of all, Tony, tell Kenny what's up and remind him that he knows dang sure I'm faster than him. Now, about the Lions. They need to get Matthew Stafford healthy, pronto. They have all manner of weapons. Calvin Johnson? Freak. (That was totally a touchdown against the Bears, too.) And I love Jahvid Best. He's a freak, too. Anybody who handles that hit he took in the Maryland game while at Cal and do something other than toss some cookies, is a rock star.
Over/under: Three wins for Kasey Kahne next year with Red Bull? Chase?
-- Jeremy Smith, couldn't tell you where Jeremy lives, either
Under. I don't see three victories out of Red Bull Racing. The organization has one win in its existence. Kahne has stupid talent, but they'll have to put an excellent team around him to win. Red Bull recently did some executive-level restructuring to try to improve the team's competitiveness, but will it matter quickly enough for Kahne to benefit? They're like Jerry Reed -- a long way to go and a short time to get there.
I need a World Series pick! Now!
-- Martell Saunders, West Side
I'm a Tampa Rays guy, Martell. My best friend from childhood, Bones, is one of their trainers. I have loyalty, sir. But my head says Philadelphia. They have pitching for days, including one of the best ever in Roy Halladay. Brad Lidge has the killer scent back. And the bats? Please.
That's my time. Thank you for yours. I have a flight to catch. Who knew the Phoenix airport was such a fine writing spot?
Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.
Sam Hornish Jr. won three IndyCar Series championships and one Indy 500 between 2001 and 2006. In 107 Sprint Cup starts, he has two top-5s and eight top-10s. What gives?