For Sam Hornish Jr. and his No. 12 Penske Racing Ford team, the key to the 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series season was getting off to a good start.
With the series in the midst of a two-week hiatus, it appears Hornish and his group have accomplished just that.
"We started off the year just the way we wanted to, and have made sure we took care of the car throughout the first five races as well as we could," Hornish, 33, said following his runner-up finish at Auto Club Speedway. "We wanted to get out of the box good, and I preached that to the team in the offseason."
Thanks to a win at Las Vegas, and top-10 or better finishes elsewhere, Hornish leads the series' points standings. He will carry a 28-point advantage into Texas Motor Speedway when teams kick back into gear April 12 with the running of the O'Reilly Auto Parts 300.
But Hornish knows there is a lot of company well within sight of the top spot. A mix of newcomers and veterans, new teams and established stars are just as eager to resume chasing the checkered flag. Regan Smith, who made the move to JR Motorsports during the offseason, trails Hornish in second, while Brian Scott (Richard Childress Racing), Justin Allgaier (Turner Scott Motorsports) and Austin Dillon (RCR) round out the top five.
"We've been working on stuff, trying to find that package that works for us and almost essentially testing at the same time that we're racing and trying to gain points," Smith, who finished thirdat Auto Club, said. "I've got a lot of confidence in this race team and a lot of confidence in the guys on the pit box calling the shots.
"Once we get a few things scienced out, then hopefully, we're the car up there battling with the 54 (Kyle Busch) and the 12 (Hornish) and really make it interesting."
Trevor Bayne (Roush Fenway Racing), Kyle Larson (TSM), Parker Kligerman (Kyle Busch Motorsports), Elliott Sadler (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Alex Bowman (RAB Racing) complete the top 10.
Larson and Bowman are currently 1-2 in the battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors.
Busch, a regular in Sprint Cup, is the Nationwide series' most recent winner, capturing back-to-back races at Bristol and ACS. He won earlier this year at Phoenix as well, and five of his 54 career wins have come at Texas. Kligerman said being paired with such a talented teammate has been a boost to his own 2013 efforts.
"Kyle is such a great mentor as an owner and as a driver," Kligerman said. "I like to tell the story (of) when we were at Phoenix and in 10 minutes, I learned more with him than I have with about most drivers I've met.
"He has a great feel for these (cars); he has a great feel for these race tracks. He's obviously very talented and also very open about how to help you out and what you should do to get better."
Wayne Auton, who took over as Nationwide Series director after overseeing the Camping World Truck Series since its inception, said he's been impressed with the caliber of competition through the first five races. While Hornish has enjoyed the strongest start, others have kept pace and several surprises have already emerged.
"You can't say enough about the competition level that's there," he said. "What we've seen with Kyle Larson, a young ? up and comer; all the rookies that are in the field this year, how well they have participated. ?
"I guess what I have been sort of proud of is the way that I've learned how these guys and gals and owners and drivers and crew members handle themselves in the garage area, and how good the cars really, really are ? how competitive they are once they get on the race track."
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