Hornish wins continues sudden NASCAR surge

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CONCORD, N.C. - Some 600 miles away from Lowe's Motor Speedway, nervous drivers fretted over the final qualifying day for the Indianapolis 500.

Sam Hornish Jr. was thrilled to be as far away as possible.

It didn't hurt, of course, that he was busy celebrating his first NASCAR victory.

After almost three years of agonizing struggles, Hornish finally found success in stock cars by winning a qualifying race that earned him a spot in the All-Star race. The non-points victory was his first of any kind since he left the IndyCar Series for a full-time move to NASCAR in late 2007.

"This is the first time I have ever won anything in stock cars, so I am pretty happy about that," he said after Saturday night's win. "Obviously it's not going to say in the stat book that I won a race, so we're going to keep working until we get to that point. You know, I have worked almost three years at doing this now, trying to get our first win of any sort. That part feels good.

"But I am going to keep hungry, keep working, until we get a win on a points weekend."

It seemed Hornish would never get there as recently as a month ago, when his season-best result of 16th at Las Vegas was overshadowed by four finishes of 31st or worse. He wasn't competitive in consecutive short-track races at Bristol at Martinsville, and it was beginning to appear as if one of the greatest American drivers in open-wheel history was going to be yet another NASCAR bust.

Then he moved on to Phoenix, where familiarity with the track from his open-wheel days helped Hornish to a ninth-place finish - his first career top 10. He ran well the next week at Talladega until a late accident ruined his shot at another strong finish, but bounced back with a career-best sixth-place finish at Richmond.

Darlington was a struggle - he wrecked and finished 30th - but he came back strong with Saturday night's win in the Sprint Showdown. Although he finished 16th out of 21 drivers in the $1 million main event, the victory that transferred him in was proof that Hornish is on a monthlong surge that shows he can make it in NASCAR.

"I've told people for a long time that you've got to start getting 10th-place finishes, and then you've got to start getting top-fives, and then you can start winning," he said. "We've had a long road here. I'm really happy that Penske Racing and (sponsor) Mobil 1 kept me in the car, and if we keep working away at it, we're going to get there."

The gratitude toward team owner Roger Penske and his sponsor drew pause: Was Hornish in danger of losing his ride after a rough rookie season in which he failed to qualify for two races and finished 35th in the points?

"Nobody ever said anything to me, but I am the first one that wants the team to succeed," he said. "I know that Mobil 1 puts a lot of money into it and that Penske puts a lot of time and effort into it. But when it comes down to it, I don't want to be just another guy out there driving around. I want to be a guy out there competing for race wins.

"If we are not winning, I take it just as hard as anybody. I am glad they saw that we were making progress."

Hornish had never before struggled to find success, winning three IndyCar titles and the 2006 Indy 500 for the one victory that had eluded an otherwise tremendous open-wheel career. He left for NASCAR a little more than a year later, saying he'd accomplished everything he could in IndyCar.

Now far removed from Sunday's final day of Indy 500 qualifying, he doesn't regret the move or long to be back at the Brickyard for the long month of May leading into the biggest race of the year.

"Being at Indy for three weeks, and all you do is think about it for a week before that, it made me sick to my stomach just because that's all you focused on," he said. "I love being over here. I love being able to go to Richmond, Darlington, I get to come here and run the All-Star race and then you cap it off with the (Coca-Cola) 600 next week.

"It's a lot of fun and I like the way the schedule goes. You're not at one place for three-and-a-half weeks just thinking about one single race."


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