Will Hornish prove himself at Indy?
INDIANAPOLIS -- When it's Sam Hornish Jr.'s turn to be introduced for Sunday's Brickyard 400 (1 p.m. ET, ESPN), the public address announcer will include the Penske Racing driver's favorite phrase: "2006 Indianapolis 500 champion."
"There is no other track that really does that," Hornish said as he munched on a granola bar. "So it's nice to have a little tag along with your name when you get introduced."
Hornish is used to being in the spotlight at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, but it's usually for something he has done on the track -- such as winning the 500 in 2006, not finishing in four out of eight 500 appearances, or finishing 21st or worse in three Sprint Cup races.
Now he finds himself in the spotlight here because of something somebody else did. He is in the race because teammate AJ Allmendinger is suspended indefinitely for testing positive for amphetamines.
Otherwise, Hornish would be spending Sunday at home in North Carolina watching the race on television or spending time on the lake with his wife and children, as he was four weeks ago before getting the emergency call to replace Allmendinger at Daytona.
But Hornish doesn't care how he got here. He's just glad of the opportunity to prove he belongs, to prove he is capable of winning at Indianapolis in a stock car just as he had to prove he was capable in an Indy car after six failed attempts.
In a way, that would make kissing the bricks this Sunday almost as meaningful as it was the first time.
"To have the opportunity to have won the Indianapolis 500, that made everything else a lot easier to come here," Hornish said. "If I was coming here running this without doing it, I'd be a lot more nervous, a lot less willing to do a bunch of interviews because the 500 and Indianapolis meant to much to me.
"I carried that with me all year long when we weren't there. I'm excited to be here. I didn't get to come here last year."
Hornish wasn't here a year ago because he lost his Sprint Cup ride after the 2010 season when sponsorship went away and because his performance didn't warrant his staying. He spent the 2011 season mostly watching, observing and learning what he did wrong. He raced a part-time Nationwide Series schedule last year and is a full-time Nationwide driver in 2012.
Now he's getting a second chance at the Cup level, one some don't seem believe he should get.
Life is about opportunity, and Hornish has a big one here. He knows that, if he does well Sunday and the next week at Pocono, it likely will earn him more races this year in the No. 22 -- maybe even a seat in the car for 2013.
Allmendinger likely will be out for at least four or five months as he takes part in NASCAR's Road to Recovery program. He must complete it if he hopes to be reinstated after violating the substance abuse policy. He also doesn't have a contract with Penske for next season.
Hornish is the early leader in the clubhouse for that ride.
"That's all you get in life is opportunities," teammate Brad Keselowski said. "It's up to him from there."
But this weekend is about so much more for Hornish. Each time he drives through the tunnel of this 2.5-mile landmark, he is reminded of his Indy 500 win and all it took to get it.
This place is more special for him than most.
"It's kind of coincidental the first time I get to come back here and run a yellow car I get to run two yellow cars," said Hornish of his Cup and Nationwide Series cars. "I got basically my big break in racing in the Pennzoil car on the IndyCar side.
"To have that opportunity to kind of come back quite a few years later in a totally different race car, circumstances and things like that, it's going to be interesting and a lot of fun."
Hornish is more qualified than most on the topic of whether stock cars belong at IMS. Instead of looking at it as heresy, as some on the Indy car side might, he looks at it as an opportunity.
"You have over a hundred years of history for the Indy 500," he said when asked to compare the two series on these hallowed grounds. "It's kind of hard to compare to that in some ways. But I believe NASCAR belongs here."
That's debatable based on recent races. But Hornish, having been a part of the Indy car decline, also understands the economics of being here better than most.
"I don't believe that the Indianapolis Motor Speedway would be able to continue to do the stuff it does without this race," he said. "Anybody that is a fan of Indianapolis Motor Speedway or Indianapolis in general should be happy NASCAR is here."
Hornish comes here not only happy, but with a new nickname: Hood Pin.
He earned that in the Nationwide race last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway when he wrecked Kyle Busch, in his words, because he was so focused on the hood pin coming out of his car that he didn't notice Busch.
The thing that gets me in trouble more than anything else is pressure -- wanting myself to do more than what maybe I'm given that day.” -- Sam Hornish Jr.
"The left-front hood pin did come out," Hornish said. "We've got one out, what's to say the rest of them are not going to come out and you're not going to be driving into Turn 3 at 185 miles an hour and the hood is going to come up? That wasn't a good feeling."
It was even worse when Hornish realized he had run into Busch, "one of the guys that always tries to talk to me and has always been nice to me."
And a driver you really don't want to tick off.
Hornish might have made it worse when he told the truth, a trait not all drivers have.
"What do people accept more?" Hornish said. "If I say I did it on purpose, they go, 'You're a pr---.' And if I say it was an accident, they're going to say, 'You dummy, what did you do that for?'
"You're not going to win in that situation. I'd rather just tell the truth and say I made a mistake."
That's one of Hornish's endearing traits. He's honest.
He also isn't worried about driving around Busch on Sunday. He figures it's a good thing if he's around the Joe Gibbs Racing driver because Busch typically is near the front.
And Hornish needs to be near the front. He needs to prove to team owner Roger Penske that he deserves to be in the No. 22 full time next year, which is a pretty tall order for a driver who hasn't always reacted well to pressure -- particularly here.
"The thing that gets me in trouble more than anything else is pressure -- wanting myself to do more than what maybe I'm given that day," Hornish said. "Lately, I've tried to be a lot smarter about taking what the car will give me on that day. I don't have to carry an eighth-place finish on my shoulders or [think] it was all my fault.
"There is pressure, but I know I've got to go out there and do the best of my ability, finish the race, try to tell them how to make the car better."
Being at Indianapolis will help. You can hear the excitement in his voice as he talks about the chance to become the first driver to win an Indy 500 and Brickyard 400.
"Indy is one of the few tracks where he has that power, that respect," Keselowski said.
That's because it's one of the few that introduce him as the 2006 Indy 500 champion.
"The biggest thing is just being out on pit road," Hornish said. "For me, that's always been an emotional part about this track. It never ceases to amaze me how big this place is and how much it changes from practice to race day.
"Once you get everybody in the grandstands, everything kind of shrinks up a little bit and it kind of takes on a little bit of a life of its own."
Perhaps it'll be here on Sunday that Hornish's career takes on a life of its own.