NASCAR & Auto Racing

IndyCar champion Sam Hornish Jr. struggling with the NASCAR option, still pondering his future

As the list of open-wheel stars moving to NASCAR grows, Sam Hornish Jr. remains undecided about his future.

He’s had tremendous success in IndyCars – winning three championships and last year’s Indianapolis 500 – but his tryout in stock cars hasn’t been nearly as smooth. He’s still trying to make his first Nextel Cup event, and dropped to 0-for-4 after failing to qualify for Saturday night’s race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway.

“We knew it was going to be difficult coming in,” Hornish said Thursday. “We’d like to have been racing a couple times so far, but we knew this was a possibility. We knew this was going to be tough, and that’s why I said I wanted to do this.”

A longtime open-wheel loyalist, Hornish now finds himself one of the many newcomers in NASCAR.

The road was paved last summer by Juan Pablo Montoya, who left Formula One for the Cup Series, and the defections have been fast and furious ever since. In the past week, reigning IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti and Champ Car star Patrick Carpentier both said they will run full Cup schedules next season.

Former Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve, also scheduled to run a full season, made his Cup debut last week at Talladega and Scott Speed raced in the ARCA event there in preparation for a full season in that series.

All the moves have been full of fanfare, but Hornish has just quietly plugging along. He can’t get into a Cup race, and he’s not turned too many heads in the eight Busch Series events he’s run, with a 15th-place finish at Atlanta earlier this season his best showing.

But Hornish cautions that its unfair to judge him against drivers who have been racing stock cars far longer than he has.

“These guys have more races in stock cars the past two months then I have my entire life,” he said. “We knew it was going to be tough and that’s why we didn’t decide ‘We’re going to do it next year, lets just go do it.’

“We’re here trying to get track time, trying to get experience, so if I do go this route, I’ll at least have a little experience and at least have been to some of these tracks before.”

But Hornish remains undecided on what route he plans to go. Car owner Roger Penske is leaving the decision up to him, assuring Hornish there will be a seat for him in either series.

And unlike some of the other open-wheel defectors, Hornish believes he has a choice.

“Some of the Formula One guys, there is no where else for them to go and this was a place where they could have an opportunity,” Hornish said. “And Dario, I hear he had his deal to come to NASCAR for two years, and he didn’t have a whole lot of success in the IRL until this year. So that may have been a case of ‘Let’s go try something different.’

“But for me, this has been something that’s always intrigued me. I always wanted to run the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400. And I know in order to ever have a chance to win, you’ve got to be doing it full time.”

As the American star of open-wheel racing, Hornish admits to pressure surrounding his upcoming decision. Half of his fans tell him he’ll be letting the IndyCar Series down if he leaves, while the other part encourages him to go to NASCAR, because with it’s 36-race schedule, they can watch him race more often.

Hornish said he won’t be swayed by the opinions of others.

“I’ve tried to really stay with the IRL and do all the things I could do,” he said. “I feel I can only do so much – somebody will replace me. It might not be today or tomorrow, but there will always be the next American driver. I think I’ve tried to do the best I could for myself, the league and open wheel racing in general.

“But sooner or later, I’m going to quit racing. I am not always going to be able to do it.”