Sunday, May 25, 2003

Hornish hopes a win will quiet his critics


Indy has proven bad luck for IRL points champ

The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS - Sam Hornish Jr. has been asked the question often. Answering it has proved difficult.

For two seasons, Hornish has done virtually everything on the Indy Racing League circuit - taking back-to-back points championships, winning on six different tracks and earning nearly $5 million. But what about the Indianapolis 500?

"I hear that question quite a few times, and basically I'm trying to figure out a way to get people to stop asking it," he said. "I guess the only way to do that is to win Indy."

Hornish enters today's race again hoping to change an undistinguished record on the 2 1/2-mile oval.

He's never started on the front row, never finished in the top 10, never even led a lap here - stats not befitting a points champion.

He'll start 18th today, the lowest of his four Indy starts, and despite being the highest-qualified starter with a Chevy engine, he still has struggled.

"If he wins the race this year with what he has to work with, they should rename this place after him," team owner John Barnes said Wednesday.

Barnes isn't bashful about his regard for Hornish's skills. He calls Hornish, who turns 24 in July, the best open-wheel racer in America, maybe even the world.

More important for the IRL, Hornish has all the traits needed to be its poster boy: He's young, charismatic and successful.

After posting eight wins in his last 28 races and becoming the first IRL driver to win consecutive points titles, Hornish still isn't its best-known figure. That distinction belongs to Helio Castroneves for one reason - he's a two-time Indy winner. He is the Phil Mickelson of the IRL - a good competitor who failed to win the "big one."

"It's depressing sometimes, because I know we could have had some good races," said Hornish, who's 10th in the IRL points standings. "I always look forward to coming back here, I just don't like to talk about it."

Barnes explains Hornish's struggles as part inexperience, part timing. In his first two Indy starts, Barnes said Hornish was too impatient. Last year, Hornish spent the entire month preaching patience. His reward? Finishing ahead of only eight other drivers and last among those who hadn't dropped out of the race or crashed. In his two other Indy starts, Hornish finished 24th and 14th.

While some view Hornish as the IRL's face of the future, there have been murmurs he is considering moving to NASCAR next season. His contract with Panther Racing runs out this year, and Barnes said he does not know if Hornish will leave the IRL.




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