Last year at this time, Sam Hornish Jr. was on a roll. The 2003 season had been a roller coaster ride for the 2001- 2002 Indy Racing League IndyCar Series champion, who had to contend with a moribund Chevrolet engine that was replaced at Michigan by one built by Cosworth Racing that turned Sam's season around.
The only familiar items the Ohioan would find when he joined the Reading, PA-based crew were Firestone tires and Dallara chassis. Everything else changed for Hornish when he became a member of a team that stands for greatness in the open wheel category of motorsports.
Hornish reacted well in the first race of the year, winning the opening salvo at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But that was all he's done to date in the winning department, as the series rolls into its final two races for the 2004 season.
Always considered a savvy driver, for 2004 Hornish inherited the talents of Rick Mears, the four-time Indianapolis 500 Mile Race winner who serves as a coach for Marlboro Team Penske. He found himself with a crew that, in some instances, has been with his team longer than Hornish has been alive!
Unfortunately, he also inherited a Toyota engine that just wasn't up to the challenge meted by Honda, which developed its outgoing 3.5-liter and incoming 3-liter power mills concurrently. Toyota, apparently did not do so and has suffered for the lapse all year long. Hornish's luck, too, seems to have melted away a bit.
If you compare his last two seasons with Pennzoil Panther, where Hornish amassed eleven wins in 52 races, took three MBNA Pole positions, 30 top- five and 37 top-10 results to this year the change is one Hornish never could have imagined. This year he has one victory, no poles, five top-five and seven top-10 finishes and has been running at the finish in 11 of 14 races.
Not what Hornish expected? Not what anyone expected of Hornish either.
"I like this track," where patience is clearly a virtue. "You have to invest for the last ten, or last five laps" of the Toyota Indy 400. "Last year I didn't have the fastest car, but I stayed with the lead pack, conserved fuel and made my move at the right time."
Will he manage to do it again? Only if Toyota's engine has sufficient power to allow Hornish - and teammate Helio Castroneves - to stay with the lead pack and to keep their fuel mileage close to that of the Honda-powered cars.
It's been a frustrating year for a guy who expected to be in combat for the title for a fourth consecutive time. "I've been pretty lucky to have three good years in this Series," Hornish admitted. "I think we'll be back for 2005, though. It's great to work with these guys and I'm just keeping my head up and looking to the next race and to next year."
While bemoaning the lack of Toyota power as compared with Honda, Hornish still notes that he and Castroneves are the top Toyota drivers in the championship. Castroneves lies in fourth place while Hornish holds seventh place points. Neither is eligible for the IndyCar Series title, which will go to either Tony Kanaan or Dan Wheldon of Andretti Green Racing.
"I know we're doing the best we can and we'll keep working away on it," Hornish stated in defense of Marlboro Team Penske. It hasn't helped that Hornish has retired from three events due to accidents, a scenario he managed to avoid in prior years.
Even as he looks forward to this weekend's Toyota Indy 400 at one of his favorite tracks, the 2-mile California Speedway oval, Hornish also must take a look at road racing, a discipline he's not been part of for about five years, when he last raced in the Toyota Atlantic Championship.
"I'm looking forward to the road races next year, but there are things I needed to work on after five years away." Learning to dive deeper into corners and rely on the Dallara/Toyota Indy car's great braking ability and other little things like that hampered his first outing, Hornish believes.
Yet he didn't think it would take long to get back in the rhythm in the few open tests the IRL will hold before conducted its inaugural street race at St. Petersburg in April. "I have to get it into my head," Hornish said.
The road racing cars he previously drove had less horsepower and were much lighter than his current mount. "On this car the brakes are really good and the changes I have to make are mostly mental. I know we've got another test coming up and I'm not worried about it at all," despite the lack of a kart track near his home on which to hone those skills.
Sam Hornish Jr. has 21 other IndyCar Series drivers looking to keep him from a third straight visit to Victory Lane on the 2-mile California Speedway oval this Sunday afternoon, but he thinks he can go into the race with as good a chance to win as anyone.