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Title would complete Hornish's NASCAR transition

NASCAR.com

Sam Hornish Jr. laughed at the question. It wasn't something he'd ever considered.

After collecting three IndyCar championships and racing to one of the most dramatic Indianapolis 500 wins (2006) in history, does Hornish consider himself a full-fledged NASCAR driver now that's contending for the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series championship?

"I would say so,'' Hornish said without hesitation. "When I ran IndyCars I looked at myself as an IndyCar driver, but that was in the past

"When I look at it from the outside perspective, more and more people look at me as a stock car driver.

"I don't know if there ever was a moment where that all switched over but I think people will always associate Indy with me because I did it for so long and we were so successful at it."

After spending the last six seasons in NASCAR -- including 2008-2010 primarily at the Sprint Cup level -- driving for the legendary Penske Racing team that fielded his winning Indy 500 car, Hornish is showing the same talents in a stock car that he did as one of IndyCar's most decorated drivers.

It's a transition that other open-wheel drivers have not been able to fully complete. And as fans around the globe prepare for racing's biggest weekend of competition with NASCAR's Charlotte doubleheader weekend and Sunday's Indianapolis 500, Hornish is that rare driver who has even attempted to prove himself on the sport's biggest stages in different disciplines.

And it has been humbling, invigorating and rewarding.

To Hornish, his road to stock car success has been as much a test of perseverance as talent.

By all accounts, his current situation driving the No. 12 Alliance Truck Parts Ford is an example of tenacity and loyalty -- that of both Hornish and team owner Roger Penske.

After running 22 races in Penske's No. 22 Sprint Cup car last year when driver A.J. Allmendinger was suspended for failing a drug test and subsequently released from the Penske team, Hornish was hopeful he would have a shot a the seat fulltime in 2013 -- a return to Cup competition after spending the better part of the last two years in Nationwide.

Instead, Joey Logano was hired for the No. 22 and Hornish was given a full-on shot at the Nationwide Series title this season -- an opportunity he has seized without grudge.

He led the championship standings the first seven weeks of the season, won at Las Vegas and is 28 points behind current leader Regan Smith heading into Saturday's History 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

It's been confirmation to Hornish that he made the right career move -- even if it hasn't been as quick an ascent as he once envisioned.

"As far as I'm concerned, obviously a lot of me wishes I was on the Cup side, but I'm making the best of the situation,'' Hornish said. "A lot of people might argue with where we're at. But I'm still getting to do what I always wanted to do and that's drive race cars for a living.

"I'm still challenging myself to get to where I want to be on the stock car side. I get to go out there and race every weekend and I'm not having to worry about how many races I can get in in a year. We've been strong everywhere we've went and we just need to continue this solid focus.

"There's no reason we can't win the championship if we just go out there and continue to have fun with it and work hard and make ourselves better. And if we end up in the Nationwide Series for another year after this one we'll just try to keep enjoying it. It's all about the end goal. It doesn't always have to happen exactly when you want it to.''

Hornish struggled initially moving directly from IndyCars in 2008 to NASCAR's elite Cup level, collecting only nine top-10s in 130 Cup starts -- the highlight a pair of top-10s in 2009.

"It was difficult for us because the normal transition would have been to run a year of Nationwide before Cup and it's easy to say he should have done that or we should have done that for him,'' Penske Racing President Tim Cindric said.

"The difficult thing was that at that point in time we had Exxon Mobil that was ready to sponsor his Cup ride. There wasn't a guarantee that if we had waited until 2009 they were ready to wait that long. It was one of those things, where we had to make a decision.

"The unfortunate thing for Sam was not only did he not have the experience, the testing rules were such at the time we couldn't test him places to get him ready. And our team, quite frankly, wasn't very good with our on-track performance at that time. It was difficult even for the guys who had experience.''

It was especially hard for Hornish, one of the most celebrated IndyCar drivers of his generation, who had grown so accustomed to winning.

"For my first couple years over here, it made it very difficult because I felt like I had more to prove -- that if I didn't have the success right away, people would look at it as a failure,'' Hornish said.

"So I always wanted to push hard to make sure that didn't happen. And I probably pushed myself too hard trying to make it happen too quickly. It's a lot of learning you have to do to get to the point where you're consistently competitive over here. It's not something that happens overnight no matter how good you were in any other series.

"If I would have stepped back and said this is going to take two or three years or whatever it was instead of trying to make it happen in the first six days, I would have probably been better off because I pushed myself way too hard and didn't give myself a proper chance to learn in those first three years.''

And now Hornish is seeing the result of having re-adjusted his expectations to better suit his reality. Experience and proper opportunity have caught up to his talent level and Hornish is back where he's spent the majority of his career, vying for victory and contending for a championship.

And as much as Hornish is enjoying the NASCAR scene, he hasn't completely closed the door on Indy. The Memorial Day weekend double of running the Indy 500 and NASCAR's Coca-Cola 600 is getting buzz again.

Former Cup champ Kurt Busch completed the Indy 500 Rookie Orientation Program driving a car for Andretti Autosport earlier this month. Shortly after climbing out of the car, he was calling for NASCAR and IndyCar to coordinate green flag starting times to facilitate the feat. Robby Gordon was the last to try it in 2004.

Since he already drives for the Indy 500's all-time winningest team owner, Roger Penske, the logistics for Hornish to pull it off would seem easier than for most.

"If I hadn't ever won Indy, I might lean a little more toward it,'' Hornish said. "I know how stressed out I was when I ran the 500 though and I don't know if I want to put myself through that again -- the emotional side of it. It won't just be a one-off race, I'd be thinking about it 12 months out of the year. That's how much it means to me.

"I might wake up one morning and decide that's exactly what I've got to do, but it wasn't today.

After all, Hornish is first, a NASCAR driver now.

 

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