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At Finishing School, He's Star Pupil

It's no coincidence that Hornish, a student of his craft, has won four of the IRL's closest races.

September 18, 2003|Mike Kupper | Times Staff Writer

Some things just go together. You think of one, you think of the other: bacon and eggs, sunshine and flowers, Romeo and Juliet, Sturm und Drang ... Sam Hornish Jr. and close finishes.

In the last two seasons, the 24-year-old driver from Defiance, Ohio, has been involved in five of the Indy Racing League's closest finishes. More to the point, he has won four of them, most recently the 300-mile race Sept. 7 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., where he beat Scott Dixon, by .0099 of a second, and Bryan Herta, by .0100, after taking the lead with a gutsy outside pass five laps from the finish.

Hornish next will present his driving skills to Southern California fans in Sunday's Toyota 400 at California Speedway in Fontana, which just happens to be the track where Hornish, the IRL's two-time defending champion, began his run of close calls. Not that many will recall.

The IRL made its initial visit to Fontana in the spring of 2002. Before a "crowd" generously estimated at 15,000 -- the speedway seats more than 92,000 -- Hornish led Jaques Lazier's car into the last lap, lost the lead in the second turn, got it back in the fourth, on an outside pass, naturally, and beat Lazier by .0281 of a second, their cars brushing wheels 100 yards from the finish.

Lazier was heard to observe, "It's nerve-racking when cars start sliding next to each other."

Hornish said: "I'm glad it wasn't any more exciting than what it was."

Later that season, Hornish nosed out Al Unser Jr. by .0024 of a second -- the closest finish -- at Chicagoland, then, after passing Helio Castroneves on the outside, won their duel, and his second championship, by .0096 of a second, the second-closest, in the season finale at Fort Worth.

This season, before beating Dixon at Joliet, Hornish held off a challenge by Alex Barron for more than 30 laps, then was passed by Barron coming off Turn 4 on the last lap at Michigan International Speedway in late July and lost by .0121 of a second.

"The only one [of those close finishes] I lost was because I was in the wrong position," Hornish said during a recent test session at California Speedway. "I was leading that race, and all the other ones, I've been in second when it came down to it.

"At Michigan, that was the only choice we had. We were fast enough to be out front, leading, and the pack was so big that we didn't want to be in second and take a chance that somebody would get a run on the outside or inside."

That was the first race for Hornish with the new Gen IV Chevy engine in his car, and the power difference allowed him to be competitive again with drivers using Toyota and Honda power, which had been smoking the Chevy-powered cars. It didn't quite allow him to run the race he would have liked, though. And Hornish, a thinking man's driver, has very definite ideas on how races should be run. Those close finishes are not merely happenstance.

"I know where I want to be when it comes down to it and I guess I'm patient enough to put myself in that position," he said. "I'll sit there and run second until the last couple of laps of the race, and then make the move."

That, of course, requires some planning on the fly.

"The whole race I'm out there -- I [mentally] stack up all the other cars: who's fastest, whose car mine works best behind. I just work on it the whole race.... It's just a lot about knowing your competitors, when the move's going to work and when it's not, where you need to position yourself late in the race."

For instance, Hornish said, he spent most of the recent Chicagoland race planning the finish.

"Yeah, I pretty much worked on it," he said. "We had the lead with 70 laps to go and I didn't want to be leading. I knew we didn't have enough fuel to make it to the end and I didn't want to be the one out there, dragging everyone around behind me. So I kind of just positioned myself. They were all trying to stay behind me and I kind of took a different line and almost forced them to go around me.

"You don't have to run in first place all the time to be able to win the race.... I got an extra four laps of fuel by just following along. [Almost] everybody else pitted [on green], but we were able to stay out and when the [caution] flag came out [late in the race], we were able to pit under the yellow, then be up toward the front of the pack when the green came out.

"It's all stuff I think about during the race -- I try to set the table for the end of the race."

And then win it with "the move," which in Hornish's case, almost always means driving the high line.

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