CONCORD, N.C. – Shell-Pennzoil Dodge driver Sam Hornish Jr. finished 15th in tonight’s Bank of America 500 here at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 500-mile battle was slowed by only five cautions for 23 laps and fuel mileage was the deciding factor at the end of the race.
“We stopped early in the race, made adjustment and got the car pretty good,” Hornish explained to Dodge PR representative Denny Darnell immediately after the race. “Then we stopped again and took two (tires) which turned out the beginning of the end for us. That was only like 30 laps into the race but it hurt us from there on out. We lost track position and eventually went a lap down. We had to fight hard to get back on the lead lap, got the lucky dog (fourth caution on lap 168) but had to start at the back and try to get through the field. We just couldn’t go forward. We’re lucky the yellow (fifth caution on 224) came when it did and kept us on the lead lap. We restarted 14th but could never really do much from there.
“We were free off (the corners) one run; the next run we’d be really tight through the middle and a little tight off,” Hornish said of his Shell-Pennzoil Dodge’s handling conditions during the race. “We also had a mixed bag at times too. We didn’t have a very good car this weekend but worked hard and got a top-15 finish out of it. It’s not what we wanted but at the end of the day, that’s what we had.
“These cars are really sensitive in traffic,” Hornish added. “That’s part of what makes it so hard with adjustments. We’re too free one run. We tighten the car up and we’re in traffic and can’t move forward. Next time, we free it up a bit, come out and we’re in clean air. These cars are so aero sensitive. When you’re in and out of traffic, it really hurts the performance.”
Hornish started tonight’s race from the 14th position (earned in Thursday night’s qualifying session with his lap of 28.174 seconds/191.666 mph). He was still running 14th when Matt Kenseth spun out of Turn 4 to bring out the first caution flag of the night. Hornish made a spectacular evasive move to avoid the spinning No. 17 Ford.
The Todd Gordon-led team immediately went to work on adjusting for handling issues. After hitting pit road on Lap 13 (for four tires, fuel and a wedge adjustment in 12.7 seconds), Hornish got caught behind the No. 32 car pitting in front of him. He fell back to 32nd for the Lap 16 restart.
A chain-reaction collision on the restart brought out the second yellow flag of the race and damaged half a dozen cars. Again, Hornish’s quick response (and great spotting from Chris Osborne) allowed him to avoid getting caught up in the mishap.
Hornish lined up 26th for the Lap 21 restart and had moved up to 15th when Paul Menard cut a tire and got into the wall to bring out the third caution period of the night. The call saw Hornish hit pit road again on Lap 37 for right-side tires and fuel.
On the Lap 41 restart, Hornish lined up 11th. He climbed as high as ninth before a tight handling condition started taking its toll. A scheduled stop under the green on Lap 84 (four tires and fuel, with a right-front air pressure change) saw Hornish get delayed again by cars pitting in front and behind him. Hornish was running 16th when the stops cycled around.
Another round of green-flag stops were in order beginning on Lap 125. Still fighting the “tight in the center” condition, Hornish hit pit road on Lap 130 for four tires, fuel and another air pressure adjustment. When the stops cycled around on Lap 136, Hornish was again running 16th and only four seconds in front of leader Denny Hamlin.
Hornish did an incredible job of pushing his “tight in the center and loose off” Dodge to the limits in staying in front of Hamlin and soldiering on still on the lead lap. When Jimmie Johnson closed in on Hamlin for the lead, the No. 11 car finally got underneath Hornish to put him a lap down on Lap 166.
The “Double-Deuce” team caught the break they needed in that debris in Turn 2 brought out the fourth caution of the night only one lap later. Hornish, Gordon and crew received the “lucky dog” free pass to return to the lead lap. On the ensuing Lap 169 trip to pit road, Hornish had to wait till the No. 6 car exited his pits before he could get into his pit box for service. The team went with four tires, fuel, a track bar adjustment and a right-front air pressure adjustment (in 12.0 seconds).
Hornish was 16th on the Lap 172 restart. Initially tight right after the race returned to green, the car was a “mixed bag” as for the handling for the remainder of the race. The team pitted again on Lap 210 for four tires, fuel and additional track bar and air pressure adjustments.
The final yellow flag of the night fell on Lap 222 for debris in Turn 4. Hornish hit pit road on Lap 224 for four more tires, fuel and wedge adjustments (11.7 seconds). He lined up 14th for the Lap 226 restart as 16 cars remained on the lead lap.
Another round of green-flag stops were the order when Hornish pitted on Lap 263 for four tires, fuel and another wedge change. When the stops cycled around on Lap 284, Hornish was running in the 16th position.
With no additional cautions during the remainder of the race, the fuel-mileage factor fell into place as the laps ran out.
Hornish hit pit road for the final time on Lap 304 for four tires and fuel.
The battle for the win came down to the top-three finishers not having to make the late-race stops. Clint Bowyer crossed the line as the winner by 0.417 seconds over Hamlin. Bowyer ran out of gas as he tried to do a victory burnout and had to be pushed to Victory Lane.
Johnson came home third, with Greg Biffle fourth and Kyle Busch fifth. Sixth-place Mark Martin was the last driver who completed all 334 laps. Carl Edwards, Kasey Kahne, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. rounded out the top-10 finishers.
Penske Racing teammate Brad Keselowski, who led a race high six times for 139 laps, appeared to have the car to beat here tonight. But, unfortunately, the No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge ran out of fuel with 58 laps remaining and had to battle back to finish 11th.
Aric Almirola, Tony Stewart, Kenseth and Hornish rounded out the top-15 finishers, all running one lap down to the winner at the checkered flag.
With five races remaining to determine the 2012 Sprint Cup Champion, Keselowski has a seven-point lead over Johnson. Hamlin is third and 15 points out of the lead and Bowyer is fourth, with a 28-point deficit to the leader.
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now moves on to Kansas Speedway for next weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400. This week’s schedule at Kansas Speedway begins with Wednesday and Thursday testing. The weekend’s schedule begins on Friday with practice from 11:30 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. local time. Friday’s 4:10 p.m. single round of qualifying will set Sunday’s 43-car starting field (live on ESPN-2). Saturday’s schedule calls for morning practice from 10:00 a.m. till 10:50 a.m. and the final “Happy Hour” practice session from 12:50 p.m. till 1:50 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV). Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 (267 Laps, 400.5 miles) has a scheduled 1:00 p.m. CDT (2:00 p.m. EDT) starting time and features live coverage by ESPN-TV and MRN Radio.