Suddenly Sam! Sam Hornish Jr. Making Gains in NASCAR

Kelly CrandallSenior Writer IMay 26, 2009

Just a short time ago one of the biggest stories in NASCAR was the open wheel driver invasion.

Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti, Jacques Villanueve, Patrick Carpentier, and AJ Allmendinger all traded in their open wheel cars to for stock cars.

The transition has been tough, Franchitti, Vilanueve, and Carpentier no longer have rides and have returned to racing elsewhere. 

Montoya didn't set the world on fire in his rookie year, but he did win a race. That came on a racetrack that many weren't surprised by...a road course.

Since 2007, Montoya is now running with Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing and driving a Chevrolet and is a solid top 15 contender.

Allmendinger has also finally found his footing. 

After being released from Red Bull Racing, he was picked up by Richard Petty Motorsports. 

He's close to having enough sponsorship support to run the full season and has proven that he too is a top 15 contender.

But then there was Sam Hornish Jr. 

Hornish left the Indy Racing League after winning the Indianapolis 500 and the Series championship in 2006.

He went from Roger Penske's open-wheel cars to his stock cars driving the No. 77 Mobile 1 Dodge. 

Hornish appeared to be off to the right start in 2008 when he finished 15th in the season opening Daytona 500.

Then in May, Hornish was able to race his way into the Sprint All-Star race by finishing second to fellow open-wheeler Allmendinger. 

That was the only bright spot of their season. 

The team failed to qualify for two of the season's 36 race season and had four DNF's (Did Not Finish).

They also had no top 10 finishes and were 35th in points by seasons end. 

Many thought that it wouldn't be long until Hornish followed Franchitti either back to the IRL or ended up somewhere else. 

A rumor even circulated that Penske might demote Hornish to the Nationwide Series, to gain more experience. 

However, Hornish insisted that NASCAR was where he wanted to be and that he was dedicated to making it work.

Now, after 12 races in 2009, suddenly Hornish Jr. is slowly starting to live up to Penske's expectations.

He's climbed to 30th in points and has four top 20 finishes, two of which were top 10s. 

Hornish improved his best career finish to a ninth at Phoenix, but would better that two weeks later with a sixth-place at Richmond. 

It was Hornish's first career top 10 finishes. 

“I said if we keep narrowing it down, changing pieces of the puzzle and trying to get all the right people in the right places, we could be competitive,” said Hornish after the race in Phoenix. 

“Obviously, I’ve said all year that we ran a lot better than we finished and should have had three or four top-10 finishes so far this year." 

The Penske team was at last competing during the races and now had the finishes to show it. 

The best was yet to come however, when the 77 team rolled into Charlotte for the All-Star weekend festivities.

Having to once again race his way into the All-Star race, Hornish got work in the Showdown race.

He finished second behind teammate David Stremme in segment one and then with 15 laps to go in segment two, passed Stremme to win the Showdown event and once again make it into the All-Star race. 

It may not have been a point paying race and won't officially count as a win, but now Hornish Jr. knows where Victory Lane is, and that he can get there. 

His confidence is growing and his team is getting better. 

They're no longer lumping around the track, involved in wrecks or causing wrecks. 

“It has taken us time to build a capable team, and he has kind of had to grin and bear some of our growing pains along with his own,” says crew chief Travis Geisler.

“I think all of us together have worked really hard to maintain a good attitude about what we’re trying to put together, and I think we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor.”

Hornish Jr. and the No. 77 Mobile 1 team are making their presence known for a good reason, and they may not only be Sprint Cup winners, but win the award for the most improved team at the end of the 2009 Sprint Cup Season. 

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