NASCAR Media Conference
Sam Hornish, Jr.
June 2, 2009
HERB BRANHAM: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to today's NASCAR cam video teleconference in advance of Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race in the mountains of Pocono, the Pocono 500, Pocono Raceway. Joining us today from Penske Racing headquarters in Moorseville, North Carolina, special guest, driver of the No. 77 Mobil 1 Dodge, Sam Hornish, Jr.
Sam was one of the most dominant drivers in IndyCar Series history in recent years before he came to NASCAR. He won the Indianapolis 500, and won three IndyCar Series championships. Sam is in his second season of Sprint Cup racing. He's 26th in the series standings. Last month he got his first NASCAR victory, winning the Sprint Showdown at Lowe's Motor Speedway. That's the non-points race that earned him a starting spot in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race. Sam comes off a solid 13th-place finish last week at Dover.
Sam, things have been looking up for you and your team this year. Maybe you can give us an idea of where you think you are right now on the NASCAR learning curve, as we go into Pocono.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: We're still trying to get everything all figured out. I've said for a long time, if I would have jumped into the 2 or the 12 car, things probably would have been a little bit easier for me. As it was Mobil 1 was coming on as a new sponsor, a new full-time sponsor here at Penske Racing. I should say again, they sponsored the team a while back. They've been a sponsor of main in IndyCar Series.
We got to a point where I wanted to try something new, I wanted go out there and challenge myself again. Mobil 1 was ready to step up and commit to be a full-time sponsor again. So we had those two pieces of puzzle. We also knew we were going to run at Penske Racing.
When it came down to it, we knew that we had a lot of things ahead of us. It was basically starting the 77 team from scratch. It wasn't like we even just took a Nationwide team and brought it up to the Sprint Cup level. We were trying to find all the right pieces of puzzle.
Along the way we have had some pieces that fit right and some that haven't. We've had to continue to make changes. We had to build all brand-new cars beginning of last year, so we are a little bit behind on that. A lot of things kind of snowballed, kind of putting us into a little bit of a hole last year. It took a while for me to learn everything I needed to do. There was a lot for me to learn about driving a stock car, being able to run in a pack of 43, just some of the things about how long these races are, making sure that we made it to the end.
Obviously I feel that the team has given me better cars this year. Penske Racing engines have given us better horsepower and fuel mileage. I've learned some more. Just the team as a whole has become a lot better, starting to gel. Pit stops are improved.
It's kind of like a ladder. I get a little bit better, the team gets a little bit better, the engines get a little bit better. We continue to keep climbing up that ladder. I think we had a top five car this last weekend. We got caught two laps down because we had to pit early because we had a tire that was coming apart. Got stuck two laps down. It took us all the way until 30 laps from the end to be able to get back on the lead lap. Once we did, we came from 21st or 22nd to 13th in 30 laps.
I was real happy with how the car was. Just wish we would have got a little bit more out of it. The maybe part was that we finished in one piece, were able to take that and have it as a backup Mobil 1 Dodge at one of the races coming up here. We know it's a good racecar. That's the thing we need to keep doing, is not having to fix them, having really good backup cars as well as good primary cars in case we ever do have a problem in practice or qualifying.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks for that opener. We'll continue with questions for Sam Hornish, Jr.
Q. Looking ahead to this weekend at Pocono, you've only raced a handful of races there. What is your opinion of this unique track, since it only has three different turns on it?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I kind of have a love/hate relationship with it. Ran there twice. First time we went there last year, we qualified 41st and finished I think 41st. I absolutely hated it. Felt like I was never going to figure it out. The next time we came back after five or six races in between, I had an opportunity to run well at some other places. Went in there with some confidence. We qualified 26th. Ran in the top 10 for quite a bit of the day. We had to pit towards the end to get new tires and fuel, where a lot of the other guys didn't have to do that, were able to make it to the end. I loved the track.
This year after running well at places like Phoenix, Richmond, places where you really have to get the car handling coming off the corner to get good runs down the straightaway, that's really what Pocono is, it's about being -- the straightaways are so long, you have to exit the corner really well to be able to pass people and to be able to keep people behind you.
I'm really looking forward to it. I like the track. I like the challenge it is. It's unlike anywhere else we run on the Sprint Cup circuit. Really looking forward to it. I think the Mobil 1 Dodge is going to run real well there this weekend.
Q. Looking ahead to Infineon for road course racing, is that more of your comfort zone? Are these cars so much different than what you're used to that you kind of had to relearn it anyway?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I don't know if I have much of a comfort zone anymore. I go to a place like Phoenix and Richmond where we didn't run very well last year, we go there and get our two top 10s that we've had this year. You go to a place like Dover where I didn't run particularly well there, we definitely should have had a top five if we had a little bit of luck on our side.
I don't really look at too many of these tracks that we're going to any more like I should expect anything one way or another out of it. We have to keep looking forward. Infineon is a place I qualified well last year. I think we were running 18th on the last lap. Ended up getting in the marbles trying to hold onto the 18th-place position and ended up 29th because of it.
I think I've learned a lot over the past year. I'm looking forward to going there and have a real good run. The road courses are so much different than a lot of other things we run. I look at it like Martinsville or like a Richmond or a Phoenix. You got some fast corners. You got to go in there and brake hard, and get the car turned, but you also have to accelerate well off the corner.
A lot of things I've been able to learn over the past year that are going to help us a lot there. We just need to make sure that we don't get spun around by somebody that's a little bit quicker than us.
Q. We're hearing that NASCAR might be considering the double-file restarts like we saw at the All-Star Race. What are your thoughts on that?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think it's definitely going to be more exciting. Do I think we need a double-file restart on every restart? Probably not. When we get down to 20 laps to go now, it's basically single-file restarts. All the leaders are up ahead. I think that 20 to go, maybe 30 to go, they start doing that. I think that some of their ideas on how to get more cars back on the lead lap are good.
But really I think it's a great thing that NASCAR is trying to do because really it doesn't matter what us drivers think, it's going to put on a better show for the fans and that's what we're here to do.
Q. As you know there's all sorts of talk about Danica Patrick coming to NASCAR next year or the year after. Have you had any conversations with her about this issue? Has she sought your advice or anything?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: A couple years ago when I decided I was going to come and do this full-time, we were out at Phoenix getting ready for my first race. We actually went over and had dinner with them. I told her that I was going to go run full-time. At that time Dario was coming over to run full-time as well. She was like, I have to go to NASCAR just so I have somebody to hang out with.
I don't know if it's something she would like. Obviously the schedule is a lot tougher. It's very grueling. A lot of people think, It's only 11 months of the year instead of eight, so it's only another three months. They don't realize there's only four off weekends, and even on those off weekends, you're going somewhere to test. Very little time at home.
I know she lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. One of the things my wife, when we first started talking about it, I've talked to Krissie Newman, whoever, they said you're home pretty much from Sunday night till Thursday, so you get a lot of days at home. The thing I had to keep reminding her, that home is North Carolina, it's not Ohio or Arizona. You have to be close to the team so you can go and do all your testing during the week.
There's a lot of things attributed to it. Obviously with it being a contract year for her, there's always definitely going to be a little bit.
One of the things I've been reading in the newspapers obviously is that people say NASCAR's ratings are hurting in the 18 to 34 male demographics. I'm sure that will help that out a little bit.
Q. Going to the Brickyard in August, that should be a favorite track of yours to race at.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Yeah, definitely. With all the problems that we had last year, everybody thought from the outside that I talked to, you know, the fans knew when the yellows were coming out. It wasn't that great of a race. I thought it was one of the Brickyards ever. Probably more lead changes. I passed about 70 cars that day. It was like a big guessing game. You didn't know what was going to happen to the tires. You could go hard for five laps, then you had to kind of cool them off for five. You would go hard for a couple, cool them off for a couple, then go hard again, take it easy for the first couple laps, then run hard for the last five. It was like a bunch of little sprint races. I kind of looked at it like the All-Star Race a little bit. People know when the cautions are going to come out for that basically. Everybody thinks that the All-Star Race is a lot of fun. It was one of my favorite memories of the Brickyard. Obviously my only one as a driver. But I've been there as a fan. I had a lot of fun. I know there was definitely a lot of passing.
I'm looking forward to it. Hopefully with all the time and effort that Goodyear and NASCAR have put into going there this year, being able to run full fuel runs, I know they're running over 20, 25 laps in testing now, they're still working on making it as good of a show as they possibly can. I'm really looking forward to it.
I love Indianapolis. I used to go there for three weeks out of the year, you know, basically torture myself, have all the agony of worrying about winning the race. Now I only have three days so it's actually quite a bit of fun.
Q. Realistically as you look at the rest of the season, have you set a goal for where you'd like to finish this season?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Well, from the beginning of the season, I wanted to try to be in the top 20 in points. I keep looking at, we had a couple races that were a little bit off here in the last couple weeks with Talladega and Darlington. Talladega we got caught up in something that we couldn't really control. Darlington, I made a mistake, got us down a little bit.
I think that the top 20 is still a realistic goal. If I look at the way the points are, if we keep running like we are, there's no reason why we shouldn't be able to finish in the top 15 in points. With that being said, we've got a lot of work ahead of us yet.
I'm enjoying what I'm doing. I think our team is going to continue to get better. The better I do obviously the more -- when you're running 25th, the pit stops only have to be like 14 seconds, but when you're running 10th, you need to run 13-second pit stops just so that you don't lose position.
The more motivation that those guys have, they'll do better. It's just something that piggybacks. You get the snowball effect of everybody keeps upping their game. I think we're going to continue to do that.
I'd like to try to win a race before the season's over with, but I also know you need to have consistent top-10 finishes and consistent top-five finishes before you can really expect to win. I know you can always sneak one out here or there by being in the right place at the right time. I'm looking forward to getting to the point where we can win and feel like we can go and run in the top five every weekend.
Q. There's been a lot of talk about manufacturers this week. Are there one or two things you think are the most important aspect of what a manufacturer can bring to a Sprint Cup race team?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Well, obviously there's engineering and there's also financial support that each one of the manufacturers can bring. You also have to look at a lot of times what they're willing to be able to do for you as far as media-wise, what they can give you as far as promotion and whatnot.
Right now the way I look at it, I'm glad that we're running with Dodge. I'm glad that they're working on ways to be able to get out of the problems that they have right now. We're very supportive of Dodge, what they're doing. My family, the family business, is about 95% all big three auto manufacturers. It's what we do business for.
So obviously when the big three are hurting, it's not only taking an effect on me as far as my racing, but also as far as dealing with relationships between my parents and everybody else. A lot of my friends and family work for my parents. Obviously when things aren't good there, it makes it hard on everybody.
We're definitely, you know, behind Detroit, all of our American car manufacturers. Obviously want to see them continue to do better. So, you know, we just keep looking forward and we know that you can't go down forever. Obviously there's going to be a rebound at some point in time and we're looking forward to that.
Q. Is there anything you do as a driver to help out Dodge or your manufacturer?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: The biggest thing we can do is go out there, win races. Run good, be a positive representation of not only Mobil 1, but Dodge, Penske Racing. The better we do, the better that helps all their sales. You don't necessarily have to win all the time, but being a positive example always works out well, too.
Q. I've been thinking a lot about the confidence that a driver has or does not have when he struggles. You take a look at the stories about Dale Earnhardt, Jr., can he make his way back, tons of stories like that in NASCAR. Can you talk about your confidence level. You came over as a champion. You obviously came over probably with a head full of confidence, then you go through struggles. You seem to keep your head up. There were reports, Is he going to make it? Can you talk about the ups and downs of that.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I think there's definitely ups and downs no matter who you are. One of the things I think that has helped me out is I've always looked at it as you're only always good as you did at your last race. I never looked at it as I'm the champion, I'm the Indianapolis 500 winner. I'm a guy just like you are. I'm trying to make it over here.
Obviously, you know, when I sit back and look at it, we had tough times last year. It was not easy. We definitely took our lumps, had the black eyes to prove it, all that stuff. But it's about perseverance. I'm glad that Penske Racing, Mobil 1 stood behind me, continued to have faith in me. We had glimpses of hope there at times last year where we had real good runs. But for the most part it was not what any of us had wanted. But this year we're still not where we need to be at. I'm smart enough to still know that. We're continuing to work hard at it. I feel like I learned more about the cars.
I just really have enjoyed the challenge that this has provided me. That's exactly why I did this. I knew it may not turn out how I wanted it to. I could have fallen flat on my face. And there were days that I did. But I'm the guy that's willing to sit there and pick myself back up. I know it's about something further down the road.
It's, you know, a challenge. It's a mental challenge for me to try to get myself to Victory Lane over here no matter how it needs to do or how long it takes. I'd like it to happen sooner than later obviously. But I knew it wasn't going to be an easy road when I started.
Q. There was never a time you lost confidence because you viewed it as a challenge, but not a time it ever beat you down where you lost confidence in yourself?
SAM HORNISH, JR.: I really have to look at it -- I always looked at it as, this is something that's going to be tough. Yeah, there's going to be days that I fail miserably at it. What kind of person would I be if I didn't do it, keep trying to do it, even if I knew it was going to be tough, knew how hard the days would be? I tried to learn. The times that things went bad, I didn't really lose confidence. How do I figure out to make myself better? What do I need to learn to be able to get us better finishes?
It's still a learning process. I think that's probably why the 48 teams is as successful as they are because it seems like no matter where they're at, they're never riding along, they're always trying to learn something new, make themselves better. That's what you have to do to stay on top.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to Sam Hornish, Jr. for joining us. Sam, best of luck this weekend dealing with the unique challenge that Pocono offers.
SAM HORNISH, JR.: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for everybody joining in today. I'm really looking forward to the rest of the year. I think there's lots of good things for the Mobil 1 Dodge.
HERB BRANHAM: Thanks to all the media who participated. As always, we appreciate the coverage.
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