BRISTOL, Tenn. – Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver Sam Hornish Jr. started 29th in the Irwin Tools Night Race here at Bristol Motor Speedway and charged quickly up into the top 20 after only 60 laps. He and his Todd Gordon-led No. 22 Penske Racing Team saw their luck change for the worse, however, when impatience by another driver triggered an incident that damaged their car so badly they had to take it behind the wall for repairs after only 120 laps. Hornish would return to complete 343 laps and be credited with a 34th-place finish.
“It was tough tonight for sure,” Hornish told Dodge Motorsports’ Jimmy White after tonight’s race had concluded. “After seeing how the race played out, you know, I could have just got away from all the guys that I was worried about and running around. We got pushed from the middle of three and four all the way to the exit until we got wrecked. There’s only so much you can do about that. I guess the only thing that I could’ve done different was not been in that position with that car behind me.
“Outside of that, even after they put a whole new rear end housing in it and a bunch of new parts on the front end; we could run decent lap times and run with guys that finished 16th and 17th. I feel like we had a good car and we should have rode around the back a little bit more in the early part of the race when everybody was right up at the top beating the heck out of each other. That wasn’t a good spot to be in. I wish I could redo it.
“Everybody thinks at Bristol you’ve got to get to the front,” Hornish added. “If we’d have just waited we’d have been fine. I saw a car out there that ran in the back, was laps down multiple times and got back on the lead lap right at the end of the race and finished top 20. You’ve just got to be smart about it and if these people are racing too hard and beating each other up too much, get away from ‘em and try it different. It’ll probably suit you a little bit better in the end anyhow.”
Hornish started tonight’s 500-lap battle from the inside of the 15th row and made steady progress during the early portion of the race. He was up to 26th on Lap 20 and had climbed to 23rd on Lap 40. He reported that his Dodge was a little tight in the center and free off. The biggest concern in the early laps was the water temperature that had climbed to almost 300 degrees. Spotter Chris Osborne has also alerted Hornish that his right-front brake rotors were “cherry red.”
The “Double-Deuce” Dodge had moved solidly into the top 20 when the second caution flag of the race flew on Lap 82 for debris. Hornish had already been getting contact from the rear by David Ragan and from the side by Kurt Busch. Crew chief Gordon called his driver down pit road on Lap 85. The team changed four tires, added fuel and straightened out the bent sheet metal from all the contact. They also removed a substantial amount of tape off the grill area to counter the high water temperature.
Hornish’s Dodge was still “pushing water” when he lined up 24th for the Lap 90 restart, but it gradually cooled down and did not cause any further problems.
However, additional contact from Ragan on Lap 120 saw Hornish fishtail and he wound up getting hard into the outside wall. The damage was severe enough that he was relegated to behind the wall for repairs. Body damage was addressed all the way around and Hornish returned to the action on Lap 151.
Only a few laps had been run when it was determined that the rear end housing had been damaged and needed changing. Hornish pulled behind the wall again for the repairs and joined the action again on Lap 228. Only nine laps later, a left-side control arm broke and the 22 car darted up the track in Turn 2. Hornish returned to the same area behind the wall for further repairs and returned to the track when the leaders were completing Lap 273.
Hornish was able to complete the remainder of the race incident-free and was turning top-15 lap times during much of the final fifth of the race.
The modifications done to the track since the spring race did not eliminate multiple groove racing, but it definitely made the outside line the fastest way around the track. Fans who were longing for the old-style Bristol, known for beating and banging, contact and plenty of spins certainly got just that here tonight.
“You know, I kept thinking that people would be running up there and that somebody was going to make it work on the bottom in practice,” Hornish said of the fact that the fastest and preferred groove was up on the high side almost against the wall. “Then once the race started it was like man, you can make it work but it’s kind of like Daytona or Talladega. You have a set period of time when you pull out until you get around that car or else everybody else is going to file in behind you and you’re going to be stuck and hung out to dry. There were guys that would just muscle their way back up into the top and it was all about you being patient enough to let ‘em go. And there are certain people that can get away with it and certain people that can’t. That’s racing.”
Up front there were several drivers who controlled the tempo during the race. Joey Logano had led for 139 laps and Martin Truex Jr. paced the field for 44 circuits before Denny Hamlin took the lead on Lap 409. After swapping the point with Carl Edwards and Brian Vickers several times, Hamlin regained the lead for good on Lap 462 and never looked back.
Hamlin came home the winner by 1.103 seconds over Jimmie Johnson. Jeff Gordon finished third with Vickers fourth and Marcos Ambrose fifth. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Logano, Kasey Kahne and Paul Menard rounded out tonight’s top-10 finishers. Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski was also the victim of a rough-driving incident here tonight. After spending time behind the wall for repairs, he returned to complete 434 laps and was credited with a 30th-place finish.
The results here tonight shuffled the Sprint Cup points around with only two races until the cutoff for the final 10-race “Chase” to the 2012 series championship. While Hamlin’s win saw him climb two spots in the standings to eighth, Keselowski dropped two spots to seventh. Kevin Harvick fell to ninth and Tony Stewart dropped to 10th. Ryan Newman, who crashed out of the race, was the biggest loser here tonight, dropping from 13th to 15th in the standings.
The Sprint Cup tour now heads to Atlanta Motor Speedway for the annual stop on that lightning-fast intermediate track. This weekend’s action at Atlanta gets under way with Sprint Cup practice on Friday from 2:30 p.m. till 4:00 p.m. Sunday night’s 43-car starting field will be determined in Friday’s 6:10 p.m. single round of Cup qualifying (live on SPEED). The Sprint Cup teams have afternoon practice on Saturday from 2:30 p.m. till 3:25 p.m. with the final practice set from 5:30 p.m. till 6:20 p.m. on Saturday (live on SPEED). Sunday’s Advocate 500 (325 laps, 500.5 miles) Sprint Cup race has a 7:30 p.m. EDT starting time, with ESPN and PRN Radio presenting live coverage.