The driver once spent a year relegated to a part-time vehicle, spending all those free weekends building a tree house for his daughters and watching races on television. The crew chief once spent eight months out of work, tinkering with a late model car in his garage and watching races on television. So when Sam Hornish Jr. and Greg Erwin were paired prior to this season, they felt like they had both come from the same place.
Few things motivate more powerfully than the quest for redemption, which rides along with Penske Racing's No. 12 Nationwide Series car each time it takes to the track. Despite an Indianapolis 500 crown, Hornish was dismissed by many as another open-wheel driver who couldn't make it in NASCAR. Despite three berths in the Chase for the Sprint Cup at Roush Fenway Racing, Erwin lost his job. But there they were Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, celebrating after a victory that overflowed with personal fulfillment, and might have been a warning shot to the rest of the field.
"Reminds me of some of my IndyCar days," Hornish said of the experience, and that's saying something given the way he ran roughshod through that series. It's been a long time since then, and a lot of lean years in between. Hornish wasn't ready for NASCAR's top level when he made the jump from open-wheel cars, but Roger Penske put him in there anyway, and has regretted the move ever since. The climb back to respectability has been a long one, and has included pride-swallowing years like 2011, when Hornish competed only 13 times and spent more weekends at home than at the race track.
It takes a kindred soul to understand that kind of experience, to relate to taking a sizeable step backward without any guarantee of moving ahead again. Now, Hornish has clearly found one in Erwin, who won five races with Greg Biffle before things went sour at Roush. They hit it off immediately, these two guys with something to prove, their shared experiences more than making up for the differences in their age and background.
"As soon as I found out Greg was going to be over here, he sent me a text and we sat down and started talking. I haven't had anybody that has been as dedicated as what he has," Hornish said in Las Vegas after Saturday's victory. "It makes me feel like good things are going to come. It makes me want to work harder, and all the guys on the team want to work harder too. It is great for us to all be hungry the way we are."
Of course, desire can carry a team only so far. For Hornish, this has been a slow rebuild -- a first NASCAR victory late in the 2011 season, then climbing to the fringes of championship contention last year, efforts that shored up sponsorship even if competitive gaps remained to be closed. "We sort of really dug in and got to talk to Sam a little bit and just found out where his cars needed to be better," said Erwin, who borrowed chassis setup and shock configuration ideas from Penske's Sprint Cup program. Thanks to an offseason manufacturer switch, Hornish's car now also has a Ford engine, which powered Ricky Stenhouse Jr. to the last two Nationwide titles.
Then there's Erwin himself, the kind of crew chief who radiates intensity, and is driving Hornish to work harder than he has before. "A lot of that comes from Greg and the motivation," he said. Understandable, given what the two have in common. In talking about building a race team, driver and crew chief use the same metaphor -- a puzzle in which all the pieces fit. Given what the No. 12 team has shown thus far in overcoming adversity at Phoenix and dominating the race at Las Vegas, it's fair to say at least two of those pieces fit quite snugly indeed.
Now -- what might that completed puzzle show at the end of the season? Granted, the Nationwide campaign is just three weeks old, but roughly half the season is contested on intermediate tracks like Las Vegas, where for one day Hornish looked unstoppable. And two-time series runner-up Elliott Sadler is among those who believes the Sin City speedway is a good barometer for potential success on similar layouts to come.
"I put a lot of stock in that," the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said. "Vegas is always a good telltale of where you stack up, and where other teams stack up as far as intermediate tracks are concerned. Usually whoever runs at Vegas is going to run good when we get to Texas, and when we get to Darlington, and when we get to Charlotte and some of these first mile-and-a-halfs we get to. So to see how strong the 12 car was on Saturday shows us Penske has definitely prepared very well."
The same could be said of JGR, which placed three cars in the top five -- although none of them could catch Hornish, who holds a 19-point lead over Justin Allgaier, Brian Scott and Sadler heading to Bristol Motor Speedway this weekend. With no Chase to reconfigure the standings and no wild-card possibilities to fall back on, strong starts in the Nationwide Series are paramount. Just ask Hornish, who was slow out of the gate last season and couldn't make up the difference on the championship contenders at the end.
Even more so than in Sprint Cup, these early results matter. Which is why Sadler sat down in the preseason with new crew chief Chris Gayle -- formerly the top engineer on Kyle Busch's No. 18 car -- to emphasize that on the Nationwide tour, playoff season is already well under way.
"I wanted him to understand we're in our Chase now," said Sadler, defending champion of Bristol's spring Nationwide event. "I know it's not called that, but our Chase format starts at Daytona. We don't get to make up points after 26 races and everybody gets tied back together. So we wanted to get off to a good start. Two years ago I finished 38th at Daytona and felt like it took me until April or May to get back in contention. Last year, we got started off really good ? and just felt more relaxed and felt like we could do more things as a race team the entire season."
The bottom line: Hornish's run in Las Vegas could be a precursor of things to come, and teams that start strong often have an edge in the Nationwide Series, where it's more difficult to gain ground later on. So much of NASCAR is chemistry and momentum, and the No. 12 team clearly has both, all of it generated by a driver and a crew chief who share a common bond. "We have had a couple hits the last few years that have made us hungry for things," Hornish said, speaking for both himself and Erwin. Suddenly, all those idle weekends seem a very long time ago.
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FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Greg Erwin
- Las Vegas