Despite early damage, Penske driver leaves with Nationwide points lead

AVONDALE, Ariz. ­– Sam Hornish Jr. wasn’t sure if he held on to the points lead, but he knew he was extremely fortunate.

“Blessed” is how the Penske Racing driver described overcoming several obstacles en route to a seventh-place finish in the March 3 Dollar General 200 at Phoenix International Raceway.

“To think about all those things … how bad it could have been; we could have popped the radiator there on the second lap and been 25th today,” Hornish said following the season’s second NASCAR Nationwide Series event. “For as bad as the weekend had been … to have it over with and get out of here in seventh, that’s a pretty good day.”

Hornish did in fact depart PIR as the points leader — officially he and Justin Allgaier each have 79 points through two races, but Hornish had the better finish at Daytona, and thus is the leader.

He maintained the top spot in spite of a crash on Lap 3, a spin on Lap 110, and having a fellow competitor’s transponder (used to transmit scoring information) stuck in the front bumper of his No. 12 Ford.

A bad qualifying effort (he started 19th) put him in a precarious position, Hornish said, and “around two cars on the start that I thought might give me a little trouble. One of them ran into me going into Turn 3, then I was back behind him again and (he) wrecked and we were right there, front row for it.”

Johanna Long bounced off the wall coming out of the fourth turn on lap 3, into the path of Jamie Dick. Hornish had nowhere to go, plowed into the No. 55 of Dick and the impact left Dick’s transponder stuck in the front bumper of Hornish’s car. Travis Pastrana, Juan Carlos Blum and Alex Bowman were also involved in the crash.

“They said we ran about a half a lap with it (there),” Hornish said of the additional transponder.

After repairs to his car on pit road, and the removal of the second transponder, Hornish was able to race his way into the top 10. The solo spin on Lap 110 however, forced him to once more work his way back through the field.

“Hopefully,” he said, “it means when we have a couple of good days, that we’ll win some races. It’s all a part of the growing process and to be as far off as we were this week … just real glad that we did as well as we did, nobody hit us when we spun there (late) and we were able to soldier on. … To be able to take bad days and make them into something decent, that’s what you have to do.”

• JR Motorsports driver Regan Smith improved five positions, from 11th to sixth, in the point standings with an 11th-place finish. But that was of little solace to the former Cup regular.

“In a perfect world, best-case scenario I think we could have finished fifth or sixth,” Smith said. “No better than that even if we got track position. We just missed it a little bit.

“We don’t have much of a notebook that we’re working with here. We have to build that as we go. You’re going to have struggles in doing that; obviously we’re disappointed in 11th but look on the bright side, we didn’t wreck.”

• Five-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson made his first Nationwide Series start since 2011, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for JR Motorsports at Phoenix.

“I need to get better here,” Johnson, who has four Cup wins on the 1-mile track but none since 2009, said. “I need reps. That’s the biggest thing.”

From a mechanical standpoint, Johnson said there isn’t a lot of information that can be transferred between the two series. “Two different animals,” he said. “My opinion, it does not apply every week.”

• Pastrana’s second start of the season in the Roush-Fenway Racing Ford went awry almost from the start as the former action-sports competitor finished 28th when he was caught up in the day’s first wreck.

Although he was able to complete the race following repairs to his car, Pastrana said little was learned on a long day in the desert.

“I thought I could get to the inside and I just wanted to try to get down, so once I got in the marbles the first lap and was loose, the second lap came in and I saw them crashing in front of me,” he said. “I kind of let off, but I just got in the marbles again, so, unfortunately, it was a pretty useless day for learning.

“We just drove around all day. The team did such a great job. If you see the front tire, it’s folded over completely, so I don’t know how the car survived.”

By: Kenny Bruce |

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