LEXINGTON, Ohio -- Whatever long shot chance Sam Hornish Jr. had at successfully defending his IndyCar Series championship likely ended in a Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course tire barrier.
Racing in front of his home-state crowd, the Team Penske driver started seventh and worked his way up to fourth through the first half of the Honda Indy 200. But on Lap 47 he surprisingly spun through the first turn of the 13-turn road course, sliding through the sand and into a retaining barrier. He was able to continue driving but never returned to the lead lap and finished 14th.
"The Team Penske car was working very well at the beginning of the race," said Hornish, of Defiance, Ohio. "But since it's so hard to pass here, we were just following [Dario] Franchitti and trying to save fuel so that we could try to stay out a little longer and avoid the big rush in the pits during the second round of stops, and I just lost my concentration momentarily and spun off course.
"Unfortunately, my mistake put us a lap down, and laps are virtually impossible to get back on road courses."
Hornish came into the race fifth in points, 105 behind Franchitti. He stayed in fifth but is now 129 back. Teammate Helio Castroneves finished third but remained sixth in points, 151 behind Franchitti.
Hunter-Reay debuts in seventh
Rahal Letterman Racing's driver change paid dividends immediately. Ryan Hunter-Reay was named as the replacement for the released Jeff Simmons Wednesday, then four days later earned the second-best finish of the season for the No. 17 Ethanol car with a seventh-place run at Mid-Ohio.
"It felt great. The first time out in these cars with no testing and to finish in the top seven feels like a win for me," said Hunter-Reay, 26. "We had a couple fluky things happen in practice and the Ethanol team showed amazing tenacity."
Hunter-Reay took a trip off the course into the barrier Saturday morning in practice after a stuck throttle, but he recovered to qualify 10th. Although Sunday's race was the IndyCar Series' first at Mid-Ohio, it wasn't Hunter-Reay's. He finished third in 2003 in a Champ Car event on the road course.
In 11 races in the No. 17 this season, Simmons finished on the lead lap once -- a sixth-place effort at Texas.
Manning makes progress
What turned out to be a terrible start for Andretti Green Racing was a blessing for Darren Manning.
The A.J. Foyt Racing driver started eighth but ended up third when the yellow fell after the first-lap incident that left Marco Andretti upside-down. He continued there for the race's first 27 laps and pitted early, costing him some position, but had a fast enough car to drive in the top-seven all day. He finished sixth, his best effort on an IndyCar road course.
"We were cautious on our fuel strategy and that kind of hurt us on the first stop," Manning said. "We pitted a lap early and those guys got ahead of me, and I caught up to them but I couldn't get around them. We still have a lot of potential with this car, and we're close on speed right now. We have a good starting point on the road courses and we can build from there."
Manning finished in the top 10 for the third consecutive race.
Hideki Mutoh -- second in points in the Indy Pro Series for Super Aguri Panther Racing -- will drive in the IndyCar Series finale Sept. 9 at Chicagoland Speedway in a third Panther entry. It could be a sign for 2008 with Kosuke Matsuura, 12th at Mid-Ohio, likely in his final season for Panther. Richard Antinucci won Sunday's 40-lap Indy Pro Series race, beating 2005 series champion Wade Cunningham by nearly one second. Antinucci, a rookie, drives for uncle Eddie Cheever Jr. Points leader Alex Lloyd had his first DNF of the season, going out with gearbox trouble after 24 laps. The seven-time race winner this season started on the pole for the fourth time.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.