JOLIET, Ill. -- The old stock-car racing adage that the strongest car doesn't always win bit Sam Hornish Jr. hard Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway. Even Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano, fresh from celebrating in Victory Lane, agreed.
Logano won the day, but Hornish rallied to mount a major charge that could help win the season-long fight.
The former Indy 500 champ, who felt right at home back in the Midwest, recovered from a costly pit-road speeding penalty at the quarter pole of the STP 300 to contend for the win. Although he came up just a few car-lengths shy of Logano in second place at the checkered flag, Hornish leaves Chicagoland with the NASCAR Nationwide Series points lead tucked away.
"We can't be disappointed about that," Hornish said. "When we looked at what the day could bring, we felt like if we continue to just go out there and run the way we have that we're going to have good days. We were just real, real close and to be back in the points lead is great and that's what we need to keep doing. Hopefully we don't have too many more issues."
Hornish won the Coors Light Pole Award for the first time this season in qualifying earlier Sunday, then sprinted away to lead the first 48 laps. The issues began when the race's second caution, caused by Harrison Rhodes' engine failure, precipitated the first round of pit stops.
Because Rhodes' car came to rest in the vicinity of the pit exit in Turn 1, Hornish believed that pit road would be closed after the first lap under caution. By the time he found out otherwise and made a hard left turn inside the orange commitment cone, he was carrying far too much speed entering the pit lane.
"I was frustrated at the time that it happened, but I knew exactly when I went across the line that I was going to be speeding and that there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it," Hornish said. "(His crew was) like, 'I think we're good. We're going to be good,' and I'm like, 'We're not good. We're going to go to the back.'
"We had 150 laps to get it done, we had a good race car ... the biggest thing was just maintaining the composure to get back up through the field because there was a lot of three-wide racing and guys leaning on each other. We just had to be patient and take our time with it. We knew that we had plenty of time to get there."
Hornish's car turned out to be as fast in traffic as it was in clean air up front. Dropkicked to the fringes of the top 20 because of the penalty, Hornish made his way back into the top 10 in 15 laps. By Lap 97, he had climbed back into the top five.
In the 177th lap, Hornish came all the way back, snagging the lead from Logano on the next-to-last restart. On the final restart, Logano returned the favor by sweeping past his teammate and eventual third-place finisher Austin Dillon in the 186th lap.
It was far from clear sailing for Logano the rest of the way as Hornish closed in and filled his rearview mirror, finishing just .291 seconds behind.
"It's fun racing against your teammate like that, and hard racing," Logano said after his second Nationwide victory of the season. "I feel like he was faster than us after a few laps there at the end. ... I'm glad it wasn't three or four laps longer because he was catching us, and it was getting to the point where I was going to have to move around to find some speed again."
Hornish heads to Indianapolis next weekend seeking his first win in a stock car at the historic Brickyard. He'll make the trip carrying a newfound seven-point edge in the series standings over Regan Smith, who survived a midrace spin and handling issues to finish 13th.
Hornish has ranked no lower than second in the Nationwide points all season, having led the series from February to May, when a multicar crash at Talladega Superspeedway knocked him down a notch. Sunday's 1-2 Penske sweep, even with the strongest car in second place, put him back in command for the season's home stretch.
"Really good day for the Penske organization," Hornish said, "but we always want more."
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