BROOKLYN, Mich. – Sam Hornish Jr. did not sit behind the wheel of the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge this weekend at Michigan International Speedway until 1:04 p.m. this afternoon. When the command to start engines for today’s Pure Michigan 400 was given at 1:07 p.m., Hornish began one of the most impressive performances of the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. Hornish charged to the front, led laps and posted the fastest lap times for much of the race en route to a respectable 12th-place finish.
“We were hoping for a top-10 finish, but it wasn’t a bad day,” Hornish said after the race. “I felt like it was a pretty good from the point that we started in the back and worked our way up and by the midpoint of the race we were running in the top five. I ran there for quite a bit. We just got off on our strategy and that kept us from getting the finish that we wanted. There were too many yellows at the end because we had a good long run car. Man, it was like whatever you seem to have you don’t get enough of but too many restarts there and just couldn’t move forward. You get by one guy then all of a sudden three guys behind you have a run on you.
“We had a really strong Shell-Pennzoil Dodge until the very end,” Hornish said. “We were off-sequence with our teammate (Brad Keselowski who finished second) and the others up front, but it was a solid run and I really appreciate the opportunity to work with Todd (Gordon, crew chief) and the guys on the 22 team. When we took on the four tires near the end of the race, they were sticker tires and our car got really tight. We had slid to about 17th and were able to rebound to finish 12th, so it was another pretty solid day.”
Parker Kligerman practiced and qualified the No. 22 Penske Racing Dodge 17th here while Hornish was in Montreal competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series race on the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Hornish posted an impressive performance there; qualifying second and finishing second…climbing to a tie for second in the series points.
Hornish did not arrive at the Michigan track until just before midnight, but he could be found making the rounds to numerous track and sponsor functions early this morning.
Hornish was among four drivers who had to drop to the rear for the start of today’s 200-lap, 400-mile battle. Jimmie Johnson (engine change), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (backup car) and Aric Almirola (backup car) joined the No. 22 Dodge at the tail of the field when the green flag was displayed.
Only five laps into the action, David Gilliland spun in Turn 4 after a nudge from Almirola to bring out the first caution of the race. Hornish was up to 31st and steered left to avoid Gilliland, but still caught very slight contact with his right-rear quarter-panel.
Crew chief Gordon called Hornish down pit road to check out the damage, take on fuel and take out two rounds on the track bar.
When the race restarted on Lap 9, Hornish was 31st. He began a steady charge to the front and as green-flag stops began, he climbed into the top 10. When Penske teammate Brad Keselowski pitted on Lap 39, Hornish gained the lead. He held the point until pitting on Lap 45.
The call was for four tires and fuel with a half-pound (air) added to the right-side tires. Excellent pit work (a 12.1-second stop) had Hornish running 20th when the stops cycled around on Lap 47.
Turning the fastest lap times of any car on the track, Hornish had climbed to 18th when a bizarre accident saw Mark Martin’s Toyota slam sideways into a pit wall opening down at the Turn 4 end. Juan Pablo Montoya got into the back of Bobby Labonte on Lap 65 to trigger the incident. Martin and Kasey Kahne tangled behind them, sending Martin’s No. 55 car sliding wildly onto pit road. Fortunately, all drivers and crew members escaped without injury.
Hornish was up to 15th at the time and hit pit road on Lap 70 right-side tires and fuel. He lined up 10th for the Lap 74 restart. Clint Bowyer was the leader, with Matt Kenseth, Martin Truex Jr., Johnson and Keselowski making up the top five.
A bold inside move by Hornish had him up to sixth on Lap 74. He had climbed to fifth when Regan Smith slammed the wall to bring out the third caution of the race on Lap 76.
All the leaders had stayed out during the caution and Hornish was still fifth for the Lap 81 restart He had gotten shuffled back to eighth when Joey Logano smacked the wall and left debris on the track to bring out the fourth yellow flag on Lap 88.
There were 12 cars that stayed out during the caution (56, 17, 99, 16, 29, 22, 27, 1, 21, 11, 42 & 93). All the other cars made a trip to pit road, most getting two tires and a tank full of fuel.
Hornish was sixth on the Lap 94 restart. Again running the fastest laps of all competitors, he climbed to third and was running in that position at the halfway mark of the race (Lap 100). When green-flag stops became the order again, Greg Biffle hit pit road on Lap 111, giving the lead back to Hornish.
Hornish had reported that his temperature gauges were becoming a concern and spotter Chris Osborne detected some trash had collected on the front grill area. When the 22 car was called to pit road on Lap 113, Hornish slid to a forward stop in his pits and the crew had to adjust. The call was for four tires and fuel (14.8 seconds).
Hornish returned to the track running in the 22nd position. Reporting that his Dodge was now too tight, he continued to advance through the field as the others had to hit pit road under the green. He had climbed all the way up to fourth when Kurt Busch slammed the wall to bring out the fifth caution of the race on Lap 136.
This yellow flag brought all the competitors back onto the same pitting scenario. After stopping during this caution, all the leaders could now make the distance with only one more trip to pit road.
Hornish pitted on Lap 137 for two tires and fuel (7.2 seconds). The team caught a big break as tire specialist Dave Nichols determined that the right-rear tire that came off their car was losing air.
The No. 22 Dodge lined up 15th for the Lap 141 restart. Only a lap later, the sixth caution of the race flew – this one for debris down the backstretch. There were no takers to hit pit road.
Hornish was 16th on the Lap 148 restart and was all the way up to 11th only a lap into the run. Drivers started making their final stops under the green on Lap 163. The 22 team had enough fuel to stay out for 15 more circuits.
Hornish took the lead on Lap 170 and held it till hitting pit road on Lap 174. The call was for right-side tires and fuel (7.6 seconds). He returned to the track running in the 13th position, but radioed in that he felt a vibration.
Trevor Bayne tagged the wall in between Turns 1 and 2 on Lap 180 to bring out the seventh caution flag of the race. When Hornish reported that the vibration had gotten worse, Gordon called him down pit road on Lap 182 for four tires and fuel (14.2 seconds).
“Those are sticker tires, Sam,” Gordon radioed to his driver. “Make sure you scuff them in as much as you can before we go back to green.” Hornish did as good of job as possible in getting heat put into the fresh tires.
The race returned to green with 14 laps remaining. Keselowski was leading, with Johnson second, Kahne third, Earnhardt fourth and Greg Biffle fifth. Hornish was shown in the 14th position as 22 cars remained on the lead lap.
“It’s so tight that I can hardly drive it,” Hornish radioed on Lap 188 as he fell to 15th.
Up front, Johnson had cleared Keselowski for the lead on Lap 191 and Biffle had climbed to second two laps later. Johnson’s engine blew on Lap 195 and the eighth yellow flag of the race was displayed for oil that was dropped on the frontstretch.
The time it took to clean up the oil set up a green-white-checkered finish. Biffle, Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Earnhardt and Kahne made up the top five. Hornish was 14th on the restart.
Biffle was able to get a good grip from the inside line and led to the finish, taking a 0.416-second victory over Keselowski. Kahne finished third, with Earnhardt fourth and Marcos Ambrose fifth. Edwards, Bowyer, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Truex rounded out the top-10 finishers.
Denny Hamlin was 11th, with Hornish powering up to finish 12th on the final lap. Kyle Busch, Jamie McMurray and Travis Kvapil completed the top 15 here today.
“I’m really proud of the job Sam and all our guys did here this weekend,” said Gordon. “Parker (Kligerman) did an excellent job for us in practicing and qualifying the car for us. That allowed Sam to stay in Montreal and focus on what he needed to do there. He certainly got the job done up there. For him to not even get a single lap of practice here before today’s race, Sam put in an extremely impressive performance. I think what hurt us the most was not having another set of scuffed tires to put on there at the end. We had a really fast Shell-Pennzoil Dodge today, but that last set of tires cost us by making the car too tight.”
Biffle’s win here today allowed him to take the points lead by 20 points over Kenseth. Earnhardt is third (-22 points), Johnson fourth (-28 points) and Keselowski fifth (-47 points).
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now heads to Bristol Motor Speedway for next weekend’s annual August battle under the lights. This weekend’s action at BMS gets under way with Sprint Cup practice on Friday from 12:00 noon till 2:00 p.m. The final practice for the Sprint Cup cars is set from 2:45 p.m. till 3:30 p.m. on Friday (live on SPEED). Saturday night’s 43-car starting field will be determined in Friday’s 5:10 p.m. single round of Cup qualifying (live on ESPN2). Saturday’s Irwin Tools Night Race (500 laps, 266.5 miles) Sprint Cup race has a 7:30 p.m. EDT starting time, with ABC-TV and PRN Radio presenting live coverage. Due to some ABC affiliates carrying telecasts of NFL pre-season football games or other programming on Saturday night, the race will air regionally on ESPN2 in some markets.