When Ron Hornaday Jr. began his racing career at Saugus Speedway, A.J. Foyt was one of his heroes and racing in the Daytona 500 was his dream.
Nobody has pinched Hornaday to remind him he's not dreaming, but he may pinch himself today after making his debut in the NASCAR Winston Cup series' biggest race driving the No. 14 Pontiac owned by Foyt.
Hornaday, 43, whose father is a two-time NASCAR Winston West champion, has earned a reputation as a winner at every level. He has attracted the attention of fans and peers with an aggressive style.
Dale Earnhardt, seven-time Winston Cup champion also known for aggressiveness, recognized Hornaday had the same trait and hired the Palmdale native in 1995 to drive in the NASCAR Craftsman truck series.
The pairing produced two series championships in five seasons before Earnhardt moved up Hornaday to the NASCAR Busch Grand National Division series last year.
Hornaday won two races and finished fifth in the points standings, yet was dropped by Earnhardt in favor of Michael Waltrip when Earnhardt decided to drop his Busch series team in favor of adding a second Winston Cup entry.
Earnhardt decided to hire Hornaday after watching him drive a Craftsman Truck owned by Spears Manufacturing in the series' debut race at Phoenix International Raceway.
Foyt's association with Hornaday goes back further than Earnhardt's. The pair met after racing against each other at Phoenix in the Copper World Classic in the late 1980s, when Hornaday was a regular in the NASCAR Featherlite Southwest Tour but had yet to win his two championships in that series.
"I knew a lot of people in California, people like [longtime teammate] George Snider, and they knew about Ron and told me about him before I ever raced against him," Foyt said.
Said Hornaday: "We just hooked up and liked each other. I'm just like he is. I just want to win, and I'm a very high-strung person who is not afraid to say what I feel."
Hornaday and Foyt maintained contact before Hornaday's move to Mooresville, N.C., in 1995. After Earnhardt notified Hornaday that his contract would not be renewed for 2001, Foyt came calling.
"I knew his track record and how he drove," Foyt said. "I watched him in trucks and I watched him in Busch, that's why we went after him."
Foyt has a reputation for the same toughness that helped him win the Indianapolis 500 four times, the Daytona 500 and the 24 hours of Le Mans. It makes him among the toughest employers in motor sports.
Foyt's Winston Cup team debuted in 2000 and went through three drivers before hiring Hornaday.
Rookie Mike Bliss started the season but was replaced by veteran Dick Trickle for two races before Foyt hired Rick Mast to finish the season.
"The reason we went through other drivers is that we were a rookie team and it just wasn't jelling," Foyt said. "Rick was just a fill-in for the rest of the season."
Mast finished high enough in the points standings to enable Hornaday to take a provisional starting position after a late-race crash with three-time 500 winner Dale Jarret knocked him out of a 125-mile qualifying race Thursday.
According to Foyt, Hornaday has been a perfect fit with the team.
"The team and him get along real good, he's tested real good and he's drafting real good," Foyt said. "He drives awful hard, and that's all you can ask of a guy. He wants to win and we want to win, and that's why we are jelling so well."
Hornaday, who has driven Chevrolet-powered vehicles his entire career, has also benefited from Foyt's association with fellow Pontiac driver Tony Stewart.
Hornaday's crew chief, Phillipe Lopez, and Stewart's crew chief, Greg Zipadelli, share information about shock absorbers, springs and gear ratios.
Stewart, who won six races in 2000 and three in 1999 when he was named Winston Cup rookie of the year, received his first ride in an Indy Car from Foyt.
"That's the whole family," Hornaday said. "Tony has been helping me out a lot."
One thing Hornaday isn't worried about is Foyt's reaction if Hornaday celebrates his first Winston Cup victory the way he celebrated his first Busch series victory at Nazareth, Penn.
After winning, Hornaday did a smoky burnout from the end of turn four the length of the straightaway to victory lane.
"Dale said he'd fire me if I did that again, and A.J. won't, so heck yeah, I'll do it," Hornaday said.