At Bristol, Tenn. 3 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2)

Hornish beginning to build puzzle

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 15, 2013 

Sam Hornish Jr. provided a glimpse of his Penske Racing team’s potential the first two races of the NASCAR Nationwide Series season.

Last weekend at Las Vegas, he showed its promise.

Hard work and preparation got Hornish and his No. 12 Ford team through wrecks at Daytona and Phoenix still with a share of the points lead.

His win at Las Vegas – the second in NASCAR for the former IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion – cemented it.

“At Daytona we got out luckily with only a little damage and I thought we would finish second or first regardless if that happened, but that damage kept us from maybe winning that race,” Hornish said.

“We had an awful weekend (at Phoenix) but came out of it and the guys did a awesome job getting the car repaired and getting a seventh-place finish.

“This week, firing on all eight cylinders, we got to Victory Lane.”

Hornish will enter Saturday’s race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway with a 19-point advantage over his nearest competitors. It’s never too early to build a lead and confidence.

“I got to the last race of the season at Miami (in 2012) and my last crew chief Chad (Walter) told me, ‘If you ever get some confidence, I don’t think they will stop you.’ I have had some pretty hard hits to the ego and I don’t think I am one that had a big ego in the first place,” Hornish said.

“You have ups and downs and you have to remember a lot of times that it is just a game. …

“I have said that this is like a giant puzzle we are trying to put together and we have to have multiple pieces to put it together.”

One missing piece that has been added is veteran crew chief Greg Erwin, who joined Hornish’s team in the offseason.

Since his 2006 NASCAR debut, Hornish has found sporadic success. He finished a career-best fourth in the Nationwide series standings last season but failed to win a race.

Hornish said Erwin has been a key to the team being able to rectify that problem already.

“I haven’t had anybody that has been as dedicated as what he has,” Hornish said of Erwin. “It makes me feel like good things are going to come.”

Hornish, who ran fulltime in the Cup series for Penske in 2008-10, had hoped to return to that level this season.

Instead, Roger Penske filled his vacant seat in the No. 22 Cup car with Joey Logano, who moved over from Joe Gibbs Racing.

Initially stung by missing out on that chance, Hornish has re-focused on the possibility of winning his first NASCAR title.

“One of the toughest parts about this sport is you have to have the right chemistry with the people around you and if you don’t, it will never work,” Hornish said. “You can try and that was my problem.

“Now, … I am not saying I will never make a mistake again – because we all do – but I am looking forward to making as few of them as I possibly can.”

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