Sam Hornish Jr. made real, tangible, definitive progress in his Sprint Cup career Saturday at Phoenix by finishing ninth -- his first top-10 in 44 starts in the series. The former IndyCar star delivered it on a most interesting weekend for the Penske Racing organization, one that closed the door on Hornish's possible return to the open-wheel series with the team.
Hornish had made it clear last week in Brant James' column that he was determined to make it in Cup, and would return to IndyCar only at the special request of owner Roger Penske.
After Helio Castroneves' indictment last fall for federal tax evasion, rumors started to circulate that a conviction would bring Hornish back to the Penske's IndyCar team. It was a plausible scenario. Hornish's first NASCAR season was just short of an unmitigated disaster: 35th in the points, four top-20s with a best of 13th in 34 races. The season came to a end in the worst way when he failed to make the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Penske had hired Will Power to replace Castroneves until the verdict was determined. The two-time Indy 500 champion was acquitted on six counts, with one ending in a hung jury (and not expected to be retried), on Friday in Miami. With the usual Penske efficiency, the contingency plan was immediately set into motion, and by Saturday morning, Castroneves was back in his No. 3, and Power had been shifted into a third entry, No. 12 -- painted and ready to go with Verizon sponsorship.
Power has proven himself capable of running at the front in his short stint with Penske. He was second on Sunday at Long Beach and was sixth in the opener at St. Petersburg, Fla. Power won't run this weekend at Kansas Speedway, but will be in the car with the same sponsor for the Indianapolis 500. The team says it hasn't determined a race schedule beyond Indy for Power.
With Castroneves, an emerging star in Ryan Briscoe and Power waiting in the wings, Penske is stacked in the IndyCar Series if he wants to go to a three-car team. There has been no indication that Penske wants to run three cars full-time, but if he did, the need to bring Hornish back has vanished.
Hornish didn't want to return anyway. After three IndyCar championships and 19 wins, including the Indy 500 in 2006, he'd accomplished everything he'd dreamed of. Hornish was sitting in Turn One at Indianapolis when Danny Sullivan did his 360-degree spin and went on to victory in 1985, and it inspired him.
By the middle of 2007, at the age of 28, Hornish was saying to himself, "What can I do next?" and the only answer was Sprint Cup. Penske was receptive and the move was made.
It required Penske to expand his Cup team to three cars, an expensive proposition. He didn't have the full sponsorship to fund it and likely believed he could find it for a driver with Hornish's resume.
Funding for the Cup program became a larger issue this year when Verizon completed its acquisition of Alltel, Ryan Newman's long-time sponsor. Under NASCAR's agreement with Sprint, Verizon can't be on a Cup car. David Stremme replaced Newman in the No. 12 this season, and it ran with Penske Racing on its sheet metal at Phoenix.
Without a major sponsor for Stremme and an underfunded primary for Hornish, there is pressure to perform at a level that will attract more sponsorship. Without more funding, it seems unlikely that Penske will continue with three cars next season.
There has been talk that Kurt Busch could be in trouble at Penske, but he's won a race and is third in the points eight races into the season. If he continues at that competitive pace, his job is safe. Stremme and Hornish could both stay, of course, if they perform to Penske's satisfaction and more money is found. It's more likely in this economy, however, that they're competing for the second seat.
Hornish has the most to prove and Penske has made that clear. "This is the year and he knows it too," Penske told James. "We've got to see some good progress and he's got to see it."
At Phoenix, Hornish took a big step forward with a top-10 finish. He needs to take more just like it in the next 28 races if he's going to secure his future in Cup.