SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Not unsurprisingly, the girls wanted to see pictures of their dad. Sam Hornish Jr. was with his two young daughters picking up his parking pass at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway office, which was adorned with photos of more recent Indianapolis 500 champions. So Hornish brought them to the track's museum, and showed them the Borg-Warner Trophy that features his face as the 2006 winner of the event.
"They got a kick out of that," he said. "I ranked second to Bob Sweikert's pink No. 6 car that he ran in 1955, though. Having two little girls, they like pink."
Such is life for Hornish, an unassuming NASCAR Nationwide Series driver whose past successes here all come rushing back whenever he enters the Brickyard. As winner of one of the most memorable Indy 500s in history -- he slipped past Marco Andretti just before the finish line -- Hornish is well-remembered in this part of the world, even though his open-wheel days are behind him.
"Maybe a vintage race or something," he said when asked if he'd ever go back. Still, when fans here hand him photos to sign, they're often from his early days in IndyCars or the day he won the 500.
All of which offers an interesting contrast to this weekend, when Hornish's mission is to win the second annual Nationwide race at the famed 2.5-mile track. A victory in that event won't get the image of his face on a trophy in the Indianapolis museum, or likely have fans clamoring for autographs in years hence. The Indy 500 took care of all that. And yet, it's still a race at the Brickyard, and the drivers who live for this place do so regardless of what series they're competing in, and Hornish will burn to win Saturday just like he did that day in May seven years ago.
"If they had a footrace around the place, anyone would want to win it," he said Friday. "That is why I think you always see how seriously the Cup guys take it, and Nationwide, and everybody. Everybody wants to come to Indianapolis. Anyone that tells you they didn't dream of racing at Indianapolis growing up, no matter what they are in now as far as a racing forum, they either didn't know about the Indy 500 because they lived under a rock, or they are lying to you. Look at what it means to a guy like Tony Stewart. Look at what Kurt Busch did this year giving himself the opportunity to come test a (open-wheel) car and see if it is something he wants to do. Whatever your pinnacle is, running at Indianapolis is definitely right up there for everybody."
No wonder, then, Hornish still seems a bit peeved about how the inaugural Nationwide event at Indianapolis turned out last year, when he finished second to Penske Racing teammate -- and Sprint Cup Series regular -- Brad Keselowski. No wonder he noticed the giant photo of Keselowski kissing the bricks that now hangs at team headquarters. No wonder he realizes what any Indianapolis victory means to car owner Roger Penske. No wonder he still gets butterflies before the event just like he did before another, more famous race he once competed in here.
"This means a lot to me. I was disappointed, very disappointed after the race last year when we finished second," Hornish said. "Everyone said I should be really happy, but I said, 'You guys don't understand what it means to me, and I know you should understand what it means for Roger.' ? It being the inaugural race here last year, it would have been awesome to win. I love coming here. There is a ton of prestige, and I still get the same butterflies when I walk outside for driver introductions and things like that."
Saturday, there's more on the line than just a race victory -- Hornish is battling Elliott Sadler, Austin Dillon and Brian Vickers for the $100,000 bonus under Nationwide's Dash 4 Cash program, and last weekend at Chicagoland he overtook Regan Smith for the series lead, which Hornish now holds by seven points. In his bid for a first NASCAR championship, Indianapolis looms as a perfect opportunity for Hornish to try and build some separation.
And in truth, he seems not to really mind that he's competing at the Brickyard this weekend, and not three months ago. Hornish watches the Indy 500 on television, and embraces the idea of one day coming back as a fan. In his past life, a poor Month of May would leave Hornish brooding over it until he came back the next year. Now he feels the pressure at Indianapolis for three days, not three weeks. He's even trying to maintain some sense of perspective, despite the locale.
"As much as I want to win here and would love to collect the bonus for Nationwide, the thing we need to continue to maintain and focus on is the fact that we are trying to win a championship this year," he said. "Race wins are great, but at the end of the day we have to be smart and do all the things necessary to give ourselves the best opportunity to win the championship."
And then in the next breath Hornish is talking about last year's Indianapolis 500, and how Takuma Sato crashed his car on the final lap in a last-ditch effort to catch eventual winner Dario Franchitti. Many people couldn't comprehend why Sato wasn't willing to settle for second place. Hornish understood perfectly. "That is exactly what I would have done, given the opportunity," he said. "You have to drive it in there and try."
Which just might provide a glimpse into Hornish's mindset for Saturday's event. It may be a Nationwide Series race, but it's still Indianapolis, after all.
FULL SERIES COVERAGE
- Motor Racing
- Sports & Recreation
- Indianapolis 500