- John Schwarb
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JOLIET, Ill. -- Sam Hornish Jr. figures he can let it all hang out Sunday in the IndyCar season finale at Chicagoland Speedway, unlike a year ago.
Except this time the stakes are nowhere near as high.
The Team Penske driver entered last year's Peak Antifreeze Indy 300 in a tight battle for the championship with teammate Helio Castroneves and Target Chip Ganassi drivers Scott Dixon and Dan Wheldon. He qualified for the pole but finished a conservative third, running just the right race to claim his third series title.
Saturday, he put his No. 6 Dallara-Honda on the front row again, qualifying second (214.492 mph) behind points leader Dario Franchitti. While the Scotsman will be driving for the championship, Hornish will be driving for a win.
"I feel kind of good about coming to the race. Last year there was so much talk about the championship, you needed to run well, but you didn't want to get up there and mix it up with other guys," Hornish said. "We were really patient and didn't get to show what we really had. I thought we had a car capable of winning the race and then didn't get an opportunity to push it at the end because we didn't need to.
"[Sunday] we come in with not all or nothing, but we can feel free to go out there and push it and try to win the race and not have to worry about holding back and seeing where we're going to finish in points."
Hornish could have stopped watching the points race in midsummer. After leading 159 laps at Texas in a win three months ago, his season went south. He crashed out of Iowa, spun at the start at Richmond and never recovered, was never a factor Mid-Ohio, crashed at Kentucky and required repairs from contact at Belle Isle -- all finishes of 12th or worse.
In nine races since Texas, Hornish has led one lap.
"It is a little bit disappointing. We've had a terrible year," said Hornish, who is fifth in points. "We've either been at the wrong place at the wrong time, getting taken out of three or four races, then we go to the next race not trying to overcompensate, then we make a mistake because we try too hard. There's been some high points and there's been a lot of lows."
Yet Hornish's oval prowess remains, and at the 1.5-mile Chicagoland oval he should be up front with Franchitti, Dixon and Tony Kanaan, the three combatants for this year's title.
Of course, the side story with Franchitti's title drive is his rumored departure to NASCAR next season. Hornish has faced those questions all year, not committing publicly yet to a full Sprint Cup season in 2007 but certainly preparing like it with a number of Busch starts and COT tests, with plans on running the five COT races during this year's Chase for the Nextel Cup.
Saturday, he continued to be coy, but he also said this year's season finale won't be his IndyCar swan song.
"At some point I'm going to quit driving Indy cars, whether to go to something else, take a break, retire, whatever. ... There will be some point in time [when] I'll have to quit," he said. "I can say still, 100 percent without a doubt, I don't think there's any way it will be my last IndyCar race. If I knew what I was going to do next year it would be emotional, but as far as I'm concerned, we're going out there trying to win the race, to give everybody a lot of good things to think about in the offseason."
Questionable '08 for women
It's not the story line of Franchitti and Hornish possibly going to NASCAR, but there may not be multiple women on the IndyCar grid in 2008.
Danica Patrick is under contract to Andretti Green Racing, but Sarah Fisher is questionable to return to Dreyer & Reinbold Racing. This season has been less than what Fisher hoped for in her return to IndyCar after an almost two-year absence, with two top-10s in 16 starts and an average finish of 14.1.
"I can't thank [owner] Dennis [Reinbold] enough for the opportunity to be here, but we had some major communication problems. It just wasn't what I wanted to be, let's put it that way," said Fisher, who qualified 17th in the 22-car field.
"I'd love to be back," she added. "I've got some opportunities to run some road courses in the offseason, so I need that. We'll go do that and learn some more."
Rookie Milka Duno appears to have much, much more to learn and has to be considered questionable at best to return next year. She qualified last on Saturday at 206.006 mph, 8.5 mph behind the pole speed and nearly 3.5 mph behind Marty Roth, one spot ahead of her on the grid.
In six previous races in a part-time role, Duno has finished in the bottom three spots four times and has finished only two races running, albeit several laps down.
Hideki Mutoh, hoping to run full time next year for Panther Racing, qualified 13th in a third Panther car, ahead of regulars Vitor Meira and Kosuke Matsuura, who qualified 15th and 16th. … The Unser name will be back again full time in IndyCar next season as Playa Del Racing announced a deal to put Al Unser III in an Indy Pro Series ride. Playa Del Racing fielded two cars in this year's Indianapolis 500, but team officials were noncommittal on next year's plans for the 500.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and is a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sam Hornish Jr. called 2007 a "terrible year," but he can erase a lot of bad memories Sunday by winning the IndyCar Series finale at Chicagoland Speedway.