SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- A bad day for Sam Hornish Jr. turned worse in a hurry Saturday afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a race track near and dear to his heart. Instead of another Brickyard memory to savor, his emotions swung to the other end of the pendulum.
Hornish dropped from first to fourth in the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship fight after a lackluster 34th-place finish in the second annual Indiana 250, making his most recent turn atop the series standings a mere six-day stay. His misfortune allowed Austin Dillon, Regan Smith and Elliott Sadler -- in that order -- to pass him in the season-long hunt.
Hornish slowed with overheating issues in the 62nd (of 100) lap, the result of infield grass -- kicked up onto the racing surface on a dicey restart a few laps earlier -- choking off the airflow into his No. 12 Ford's grille and causing his water temperatures to soar near 300 degrees. He lost two laps in the pits while his usually stalwart Penske Racing team worked on the problem, but a procedural breakdown during the stop only compounded the issue.
"We didn't get enough cool water back into it trying not to lose the laps, then we melted it down because our procedure failed us on that one, I guess." Hornish said of the telltale misstep. "I don't know exactly what we were supposed to do."
Without enough water, the powerplant expired after just two more laps, leaving Hornish coasting back to the garage with just his second DNF (did not finish) of the season and bringing out the second of the race's four caution periods.
As the still hot-to-touch engine hissed under the open hood, a particularly downbeat Hornish debriefed with his crew, trying to attain some level of assurance that things will be different in the series' next race, next Saturday night's U.S. Cellular 250 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Iowa Speedway.
"We got new wording for ourselves on what we need to do and when we need to do it, and we'll go back to the drawing board and make sure we have the proper procedure from now on," Hornish said. "It's super unfortunate and not how we wanted our day to go, that's for sure."
The subpar performance snapped a string of five straight top-10 finishes, a streak that helped push him into the points lead last Sunday after his second-place run at Chicagoland Speedway. While he now has three series rivals ahead of him in the standings, Hornish can take some measure of comfort in the fact that the margin from first to fourth is a scant 14 points, and that the Nationwide points race has been an ever-fluctuating picture.
When asked if he'd ever been in a title pursuit as manic as this season's, Hornish said, "not like this one's been so far." But after a significant pause, Hornish's lament over lost ground returned.
"Man, it's frustrating when you have a day like today," he said. "We had a pretty good car and we need to make sure we're looking at all the things that are going to bite us because it's things like this, like knowing ahead of time what we need to do, that makes all the difference in the world. Yeah, we might've ended up 18th today, but it sure would've been a lot better than 33rd or wherever we're going to end up."
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