There is a perception that Sam Hornish Jr. was coerced at Roger Penske's saber-point into a new career in NASCAR. And in fairness, Hornish did little to dispel the notion when the three-time Indy Racing League champion conceded that he'd always been inclined to do what his ultra-successful team owners wanted, because Penske is most-often correct.
There is also the perception that Hornish, who truncated the most successful IRL career in the league's 14-year history at age 27 to begin what has so far been a fitful and frustrating two full years in the Sprint Cup series, would rejoin Penske's IndyCar team with haste if the opportunity arose.
But if Penske forced him into NASCAR -- which Hornish denies -- at this point, Penske might have to force him back out. Because if Hornish Jr. ever leaves stock car racing, he said, he wants to do it on his own terms. In other words, he wants to leave a winner, or at least a competitor, regardless of how long it takes. It makes Penske's assertion that "this is [Hornish's] final ... this is the year he has to make it" all the more interesting. It's not just a call for loyalty, but a demand for high performance.
"When we decided to do this, they were like, 'give us two years'," Hornish said of his deal with Penske and team president Tim Cindric. "And I was like, 'all right, give me two years.' You're not going to be able to do it with a brand new team in one year. There's just too many things that happen in trying to get the right people involved. A lot of people think, 'If Sam's not doing [well at] this, he's just going to go back to IndyCar,' and that's not how I look at it at all."
Seven races into that second full-time season, Hornish is 31st in points, after finishing 35th in the final standings as a rookie. The IRL's all-time leader in championships (three) and wins (19) has an average finish of 27th this season, has never finished better than 13th and has led just two laps in 43 Sprint Cup races.
Penske officials are generally patient and sympathetic when discussing his performance. They're quick to note circumstance not of his making that undid otherwise acceptable efforts. His No. 77 Dodge was a newly-created Sprint Cup entity that has shuffled crewman and struggled for continuity. Accordingly, Hornish has learned to measure success in growth rather than in trophies. Travails have continued this year. There was an overheated engine at Daytona that led to a 32nd-place finish, a jackman stumble that pinned him a lap down at California (23rd) and a loose tire at Las Vegas (16th).
"Being 31st in points doesn't really show where we're capable of being right now," Hornish said. "If we ran where we were running at when we had those problems, we'd probably be somewhere between 15th and 20th, which is still not exactly where you want to be, but it's better."
The question is whether it's good enough, even as Penske espouses Hornish's talent and verve to improve.
"This is the year, and he knows it too," Penske said. "We've got to see some good progress here and he's got to see it. We'd like to see him at least in the top 25. ... I've thought about it that way. He's run better than where he's finished. What happens is, when you don't qualify well, and you start in the back, you get mixed up in the pits and that's one of the things you deal with. But I would say I think he's done a pretty good job. We'll see."
Penske doesn't seem apologetic for cutting short Hornish's IndyCar career, but he does seem to have regrets about how his team conducted the process.
"We're going through the same situation with Sam that [Dario] Franchitti did," Penske said. "These guys are good race drivers, but when [Jeff] Gordon and [Tony] Stewart and [Ryan] Newman and Rusty [Wallace] and all these guys came up, they were able to practice. We'd go out and practice the week before at the tracks we'd race on. There's no testing, so you walk in cold [now]. But look, we have all the confidence in Sam showing some strength. It's experience. To me, if I did it again, and I'm not saying I can go back and redo it, but you'd almost like to say they'd have to run Nationwide and then make the step."
Hornish, while vocally pleased with the performance of teammate Justin Allgaier in the Nationwide Series, wishes he'd had more seasoning than two Nationwide races in 2006 and two Cup races in 2007 before making his full-time Cup debut last season. Allgaier has three top-10s and a top-5 in six Nationwide starts this season.
"Seeing the Nationwide program this year from where it was, they've definitely put a lot into it, but it's also been Verizon stepping up and sponsoring the car for the full season," Hornish said. "That way they've been able to hire a full-time pit crew, basically, and build new cars and put new bodies on cars. It's a lot of little things. Justin had an opportunity to drive the old cars I drove and he's like, 'I wish you could get in these cars now and see how much better they are.' On one hand that makes me feel good because if I do get a chance to do some races I might have a chance to do well, but on the other it's like, 'Wow, why didn't we do this sooner?'"
To that end, Hornish said staying in the Cup series short-term isn't that important to him if seasons in the truck or Nationwide series prepare him for long-term achievement of his goals.
"I'm willing to do that," he said. "I'm not above that."
Hornish, who had won two championships and 22 percent of his races by the end of his third IRL season, remains patient in what he still sees as a stock car apprenticeship. Juan Pablo Montoya, a former Indianapolis 500 winner and CART champion who left Formula One to begin a Sprint Cup career in 2007, provides the daily reminder of the difficulty of the transition.
"Everything I did before I got in an IndyCar the first time was in preparation to drive that IndyCar," Hornish said. "A lot of the guys I'm racing, the only thing they ever ran is Legends Cars and Late Models. That's all short tracks and learning to drive a stock car. That's a lot different.
"Look how successful Montoya was in everything he did and he still only has one win in the Sprint Cup series and that was on a road course. Not taking anything away from him, but you just look at it. Everyone thinks he is one of the most talented drivers that there's ever been and it's not easy for him either."
Since Montoya's entry into the series, open wheel stars Jacques Villeneuve, Paul Tracy and 2007 IndyCar series and Indy 500-winner Franchitti have failed to maintain Sprint Cup rides. Franchitti's Ganassi Racing team lost sponsorship last summer, and he returned to the IRL this season, beaming.
"The break away, going to NASCAR for a year kind of made me appreciate more how much fun I have driving an IndyCar," Franchitti said.
Penske prefers long-term relationships, with sponsors and drivers he trusts, and Hornish is signed beyond this season. With Penske since 2004, Hornish says there's nowhere else he wants to race, but he very much wants to see this NASCAR experiment through.
"I want basically to some day have the feeling of accomplishment that I came over and things didn't go well at first but I stuck with it and everything ended up just the way it should," he said.
Penske, adjusting in the leather seat of his IndyCar motorcoach, preferred not to address a hypothetical of what he would do if Hornish, who gave him his only IRL title in 2006, asked to return to open wheel racing.
The team considers Ryan Briscoe --Hornish replacement, who won the season-opener at St. Petersburg on April 5 -- a title contender. Will Power is filling the other ride in case Helio Castroneves is convicted of federal income tax fraud, and even for Penske, one of America's richest men with a passel of high-end sponsors, fielding three full-time teams would be financially tricky.
"I think that's a question that we .... I couldn't answer that question today," Penske said of the hypothetical. "That's a leading question. Sam is one of our very best guys. We want to see him be successful where he is."
Hornish very much agrees. Speaking by phone, he was more succinct when asked what he would do if Penske asked him to return to the IRL, and underscored his commitment to his legacy in stock cars.
"I definitely think if it came to that option, obviously hypothetical, but I'd have to look around and see what other opportunities were out there for me outside of that," he said. "If it's between not having a job in the top three [series in NASCAR] and having a job in IndyCar driving for Roger, that's an easy decision for anyone to make."
But would he try to stay in NASCAR by any means possible?
"That's the plan," he said. "Unless I end up winning a race this year and then Roger says 'I need you to come over and do this for us because we don't feel like we have a driver,' then maybe that would be a way of making it easier, but I want to get to the point where I feel like we can win races."
On that they agree. On the timetable, well, they'll discuss that again soon.