With a second-place finish in the NASCAR Nationwide Series season opener at Daytona (Fla.) International Speedway last weekend, Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford, finds himself somewhere he's never been before -- atop the series driver points standings. So this weekend's trip to Phoenix International Raceway for the Saturday running of the Dollar General 200 comes at the perfect time for Hornish and his No. 12 team.

“We had a good run in Daytona, which we feel good about, and now we are getting to a track where we feel that we are capable of running well. So I feel great," Hornish said.

...we feel that we are capable of running well.

Sam Hornish Jr.

Hornish heads into Phoenix with a one-point lead over Alex Bowman, driver of the No. 99 RAB Racing Toyota. He looks to maintain that lead at the track where he scored his only career win. Hornish claimed his lone-career Nationwide win at Phoenix in 2011, beating teammate Brad Keselowski in the No. 22 Penske Racing then-Dodge by a little more than half a second.

“Sam and I are working together a lot to help us both be better prepared for the races," crew chief Greg Erwin said. "Our first race went very well, but we still have a lot to improve on. We are trying to raise the bar at every level of the program and communicate very clearly and honestly on our thoughts about the team’s performance.”

While Hornish's second-place showing at Daytona last week put him atop the standings, it didn't hurt his case that the suspected championship contenders for 2013 had trouble in the season opener. Elliott Sadler in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, his teammate Brian Vickers in the No. 20 JGR Toyota and Austin Dillon in the No. 3 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet headed into the season as three of the favorites to contend for this year's championship and still remain favorites early in the season. All three had issues in Daytona, and none of them rebounded from trouble to finish in the top-10. Sadler was best of the threesome, posting a 15th-place finish. Vickers was just inside the top-20 of the finishing order in 19th, and Dillon couldn't even manage a top-20, finishing 21st.

Austin Dillon in the pits with damage
Austin Dillon in the pits with damage

Photo by: Eric Gilbert

"Phoenix is a place where you'll really find out who the competition is," Dillon said. "I think it's a handling race track where you have to work on your car and make sure it's right for the race. I love going out to Phoenix. The new pavement and surface has made it a really fun place for a racer to race and I can't wait to get out there."

That said Dillon doesn't have a win a PIR. His best finish at the track in Nationwide competition is fourth. Vickers hasn't won at Phoenix either, but Sadler has. It just so happens that Sadler heads into Phoenix as the reigning winner of Saturday's race.

Also, Sadler's new team, Joe Gibbs Racing, has sent Nationwide Series representatives to victory lane four times at PIR, including the last time the series raced there in the fall of 2012. That also helps Vickers' cause as a JGR driver and teammate to Sadler.

"I'm really looking forward to going to back to Phoenix and repeating as the race winner," Sadler said. "That's what I have in mind. The Joe Gibbs Racing organization won the race there in the fall, so everyone on this No. 11 OneMain Financial team is ready for the challenge."

But still, when it comes to racing at Phoenix, Hornish is a Nationwide Series race winner. Considering that PIR is the only track where Hornish can honestly make that claim, there's no better time than the present for the current points leader to make a trip a trip to Phoenix.