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The comforts of home, then tragedy

6/20/2013 - NASCAR

We raced last week at Michigan International Speedway, which is the place I call my home track since I grew up less than an hour away, in Defiance, Ohio. Racing close to home is always special and it seems like it often brings unexpected surprises, both good and bad. This past week was no exception as we were busy, we had some fun, and we were given a harsh reminder, too.

The week leading into the Michigan race was busy from the get-go. Since the previous week's race in Iowa was postponed one day due to rain, I lost one day of work on "SPEED Center," and one day around the house to pack for the week ahead.

We drove from Mooresville, N.C. to Napoleon, Ohio, on Tuesday. The drive is just about 550 miles, which is not too bad, but it can be a bit of a challenge with a family of four that includes a toddler and a 5-year-old. We made it safely and without too much drama.

When we are in Ohio we do our best to see family and friends, which is nice, and I also take the time to go to the dentist, and that can be kind of nice and sometimes a little painful! I also took the time to do a lunch interview with a reporter from the Crescent News, which is our local paper. During lunch, it came up that we had been doing this for 13 years -- time sure does have a way of passing in hurry.

On Wednesday evening, we were enjoying a little family time when we heard the news that Jason Leffler was involved in a bad wreck in a sprint car. That news went from bad to terrible as we lost one of our racing family members. Jason and I competed in our first Indianapolis 500 together back in 2000, which is truly a significant memory for me. Anytime we lose a driver it hurts, but this one hit me harder than most as he left a son who is the same age as one of my daughters. It is almost too much to bear. We will keep Jason's family in our hearts and prayers.

As the race weekend drew closer, I drove to Dearborn, Mich., on Thursday to attend a Ford Racing Day with the other drivers at Ford Racing Headquarters. It was a busy, fun-filled day. They let us take quite a few of the Ford cars out to test-drive them in an area that allowed us to genuinely enjoy them. It was a great time, and it struck me as downright funny how a bunch of guys who drive race cars for a living enjoy going out and putting cars through the wringer on a test course.

Besides the driving, we were able to see some real intriguing bits of history at the Henry Ford Museum. The two things that stuck out to me were a theater chair and an old Lincoln Continental convertible. The chair was from the Ford Theater, and it was the chair that Abraham Lincoln was sitting in when he was shot, and oddly enough the car was the Lincoln that Kennedy was riding in when he was assassinated.

We also had the opportunity to meet a bunch of Ford employees. It was amazing how many of them came out to share the day with us.

After spending the day with Ford, I headed to Livonia, Mich., to spend a couple of hours with one of our key sponsors -- Alliance Truck Parts. They were doing a training event, and I was able to meet quite a few people from different places around the area, which is always fun. After that, I drove to the track and the coach that I call home on many race weekends. It was a long day starting at 6 in the morning in Napoleon, driving to Dearborn, then Livonia and then getting back to the coach at Brooklyn around 8:30 that night.

Friday we had our only practice before qualifying and the race at MIS. We were pretty good right off the truck, which is the best way to start a race weekend. As I mentioned before I call this my home track, and that meant that the local Northwest Ohio news affiliates came up to see us, so before, during and after practice I was able to spend a few minutes with them. After the day was over, my wife, Crystal, and I packed up the girls and went over to the campground where Crystal's parents were, and we had a family get-together. It was a neat way to cap off a busy day and just unwind a little.

Saturday was race day, and for this race our primary sponsor is the title sponsor. So here we are close to home with family and friends, we are In Ford's backyard with them sitting at 999 all-time wins and looking for the 1,000th victory; add to that we are racing in the Alliance Truck Parts 250! Wow, I'd like to tell you that I've been racing long enough that I don't feel any additional pressure in circumstances like that, but it wouldn't be true. I would love to win a race with my family and friends there with me to share the moment. It would have been great to have been the guy that brought Ford its 1,000th victory, and winning the race for Alliance Truck Parts would have been incredible. We always want to win, but sometimes -- and this was certainly one of them -- you really, really want it.

The day officially began for us at the Ford Display in the Fan Zone. After that, we visited the MIS Acceleration Club for a question-and-answer session. Next we went to the Alliance Truck Parts Infield Chalet for a meet-and-greet with guests. Right after that, I hustled to pit lane to get in the car to qualify.

We qualified 13th, which was not quite as good as we would've liked, but our car was fast in race trim, so we weren't too concerned about that. After qualifying, I went to the drivers' meeting and then to chapel with Crystal and the girls. Right after chapel I met some more sponsor guests in the suite.

I had about a half an hour to relax prior to driver Introductions, so I took a quick nap. As the race started, there was a threat of rain and that possibility factored into our race strategy. As the race began, I was happy with our Mustang, as it was fast. We were able to drive from 13th to third in less than 30 laps. It was fun. Our Penske Racing Ford was strong, and I felt like it was a car that was capable of winning. It was not to be, though, as we hit some debris, which broke the oil pump belt, and that ended our day.

Our week of racing close to home -- well, it was fun, it was busy and it was sad. We were fast, we were hopeful and then something happened out of our control. We are grateful for all of it, though, and we are feeling great about next weekend as we head to Elkhart Lake and a road course that I love to race on at Road America.

Sam Hornish Jr. drives the No. 12 Ford Mustang for Penske Racing. He will share his thoughts on and off the track with ESPN.com readers periodically this season. Follow him on Twitter @samhornish and on Facebook.