PHOENIX, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2000 - The reality of his brave new world is starting to sink in for Sam Hornish Jr. after his first test with Pennzoil Panther Racing, and he couldn't feel better.

Hornish drove slightly less than 300 miles Dec. 3-4 at Phoenix International Raceway. The 1-mile oval is the site of the Pennzoil Copper World Indy 200, the 2001 opener March 18.

Despite his inexperience with the team, Hornish's best unofficial lap was 20.90 seconds, 172.25 mph in the Pennzoil Panther Dallara/Oldsmobile/Firestone. That would have placed him sixth on the starting grid for the Indy Racing Northern Light Series event last March at Phoenix, where he started 19th in his second career Indy Racing event.

"It went great," Hornish said of the test. "We would have liked to have gone faster, but we're just getting to know each other."

And Hornish is getting accustomed to his new life with one of Indy Racing's best teams. Panther Racing management picked him for the coveted seat in mid-October from a list of standout drivers after Hornish excelled in a "tryout" test with the team last summer. Hornish is just now absorbing the reality of driving for Panther.

"It's progressive," Hornish said. "It was getting pretty close this weekend. It's getting closer all the time. It will really sink in after a few more tests and as we get closer to the first race."

In the meantime, Hornish will continue to focus on improving the skills that helped him finish a close fourth in the Indy Racing Rookie of the Year standings in the 2000 season after competing in just eight of nine races with PDM Racing.

Hornish, 21, from Defiance, Ohio, is paying particular attention to his driving and technical feedback on ovals of 1 mile or shorter, and he also said he wants to improve his performance during pit stops.

"I'm still getting to know the Dallara on a short oval," said Hornish, who split time between G Force and Dallara chassis last season. "The big thing was I went flat there (Phoenix) in March in a G Force and went 21.5 (seconds). I never went flat in the Dallara at this test and went 20.90."

Panther Racing used its baseline setup from the race last March at Phoenix and made subtle changes during the test based on Hornish's feedback, Hornish said.

"The guys all work together," Hornish said. "They know what they want to do, and they get it done. Everything is quick and efficient. I know I'm in a good car. All I have to do is go out there and give it 100 percent and bring the car home at the finish."