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Hornish looking for a repeat
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

There is no reason to expect a drop in Sam Hornish's performance when the Indy Racing League convenes this week at the one-mile Phoenix International Raceway. The Phoenix mile was the site of Hornish's first career win last season, and he followed that up with a win at Homestead-Miami.

Sam Hornish Jr.
The Valley of the Sun was kind to Sam Hornish last year.

The races are reversed on the IRL calendar this year. Hornish already has dominated the Grand Prix of Miami.

"Until someone steps up and knocks them off the top of the mountain," says fellow IRL driver Jaques Lazier, "Hornish and Pennzoil Panther are the team to beat."

Panther co-owner John Barnes attributes much of his team's success to consistency.

"At Panther, that's one of the things we really strive for. You see that the roster at Panther Racing, except for the driver, hasn't changed in the last three years," said Barnes. "We really think it's important to keep the same group of guys together. They understand what their strengths and weaknesses are, and also the strengths and weaknesses of the people next to them."

Hornish, no doubt, was the missing link to Panther's success. Before his arrival, the team had a handful of wins and came close to a championship. Since Hornish, the team has run 14 races, winning four and running at the end of every one of them.

One of the team's strengths is getting a car through the corners. Both Homestead and Phoenix put a premium upon cornering. At Phoenix, the one-mile layout puts cars in a cornering configuration for almost 2/3 of each lap. It also means that lead cars will find themselves in traffic for a lot of the race.

Traffic is where Hornish has polished his 2002 game. Last season, he and Panther spotter Pancho Carter would often chatter on the radio about setting guys up for a pass. Carter was often heard telling Sam to be sure to "set the guy up".

At Homestead, that warning was given once, on the pace lap and never uttered again.

Hornish has developed a fluid passing technique. One that works regardless of the lane he is in. Hornish however insists that much of the credit for his new passing prowess should go to his engineer Andy Brown.

"He (Andy) does an awesome job. At Homestead, we didn't have to touch the car all day long. He kept wanting to make changes, but I told him it was good enough already," said Hornish. "The Pennzoil Panther guys do such an awesome job. All I have to do is go out there and drive and keep it in between the walls."

There will be plenty of teams out to end Hornish's IRL domination. Some new additions to the ranks since Homestead include Shigeaki Hattori in a Bradley Motorsports car, Airton Dare as a permanent replacement for the injured Donnie Beechler in AJ Foyt's Harrah's car and the rumored return of 1999 IRL Champion Greg Ray.

If past results "hold chalk" you can expect Buddy Lazier's Coors Light Hemelgarn operation to rebound from their Miami disappointments. Last season, the 2000 IRL kingpin finished a disappointing 20th at Miami and 3rd at Phoenix. His Miami posting this year was 22nd.

Scott Sharp also expects a strong rebound from his Delphi-Kelley Racing operation.

"After our third pit stop at Miami, we tried to conserve fuel, which slowed us down a little. Unfortunately, the fuel drive broke toward the end of the race, and our day was done."

Phoenix's "X-Factor" has got to be Marlboro Team Penske. Phoenix was both Gil deFerran's and Helio Castroneves' only non-Indy 500 IRL appearances last season. Both lead the Copper World Classic last season and bring an affinity for the desert mile to their job this weekend.

"I loved coming out of Miami with a second-place finish and a lot of points in our first IRL race of the season. It's very good for us," remarked the current CART champion. "Even though we didn't have the race (at Miami) Hornish had. I tried to challenge him halfway through the race, but he was running very, very strong. We were happy with second place, and on to the next one."

"It's a new championship, new series, new equipment. Everything is new. So to finish in the top three, that was my goal, and I'm satisfied," Castroneves said after his 3rd at Miami. "It was the first race of the championship and we were trying to score points.

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.

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No match

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Arute: Calkins may bring Ray back to the track

IRL preview


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 Sam Hornish Jr. takes the Grand Prix of Miami under caution.
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 Sam Hornish Jr. tells ABC's Jack Arute about his dominating performance.
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