Thursday, October 9, 2014

Hornish clings to mistake

It's one of the four or five best moments I ever personally witnessed in 38 years doing the sportswriter thing: Sam Hornish Jr. coming from nowhere to clip Marco Andretti at the line to win the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

It might be the best finish in the almost 100-year history of the world's most venerated auto race, and even now, when you watch the replay, you can't quite believe what you're seeing. That Hornish made up that much ground in the north chute and main straightaway on the 200th lap looks like a trick of the light, some sort of cinematic magic that doesn't quite square with reality.

And yet, it happened. I saw it happen. And it leads me to thinking about another seeming trick of the light, which is Hornish's utter disappearance from the racing scene after winning three IndyCar titles and, yes, that iconic Indy 500.

As with a lot of drivers riding a crest, Hornish decided to give NASCAR a try, because NASCAR was then and remains, in somewhat diminished capacity, the Everest of American motorsports.  So you couldn't blame Hornish for grasping at that ring, even if some observers (me, for instance) thought he was making a mistake.

Half a decade and more later, I still think that. More than ever.

This in the wake of the news that Hornish, who vanished into the wilds of the Nationwide Series after Roger Penske demoted him at the end of the 2010 season, has finally hooked another Sprint Cup ride. Only this time, it's not with Penske, whose drivers -- Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano -- are in the thick of the Chase. It's with Richard Petty Motorsports, a decided rung or two lower in the Sprint Cup hierarchy.

Hornish will be driving the No. 9 Ford for RPM in 2015, and it's not exactly a front-row gig. He has no primary sponsor as yet, and there's no fallback; RPM has no plans so far o run him in the Nationwide Series. This might or might not have something to do with the fact that RPM's two primary sponsors, DeWalt and Stanley, are bailing at the end of this season.

 Still, there is this: Hornish came within three points of the Nationwide title last year.

Yet not even that got him any phone calls offering a Sprint Cup ride, at least until RPM gave him a ring. His struggles in NASCAR's top series, well documented, apparently preceded him.

"I haven't achieved yet what I came over here originally for," Hornish told when the deal was announced.

And the prospects that he ever will?

I wish I could say they were looking up for someone who, in addition to being a huge talent in an Indy car, is a genuinely good guy.  But I can't.  

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