It’s a totally different Phoenix International Raceway since Sam Hornish Jr. ran his last NASCAR Sprint Cup on the “Desert Mile” back in November 2010. All the more reason why Hornish is so eager to get after it behind the wheel of the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge in this weekend’s AdvoCare 500.
“With the success we’ve had there in the Nationwide Series cars since they changed the track, it’s easy to understand how much we are looking forward to getting back in a Cup car there,” said Hornish. “We’re hoping for a very competitive weekend at PIR in our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger.”
Although he hasn’t competed in the last two Cup races on the “new” PIR, Hornish certainly has made his mark with his Nationwide opportunities. He started fifth and claimed the victory in the Nov. 12, 2011 Wypall 200 for his first major NASCAR win. Hornish came back in the March Bashas’ Supermarkets 200 to start sixth and finish sixth. Hornish didn’t back into any of that success, proven by the fact that he led 61 laps en rote to the win in 2011.
“When we came back to Phoenix for last November’s race, all we heard about was how treacherous the new surface and configuration was,” Hornish offered. “During the testing they had there in August last year, there definitely was a fine line you had to make in getting around the place. If you got just a minimal bit out of the groove, you paid the price. We remember well because our Penske Racing Cup teams brought home some torn up race cars after that test.”
What were the specifics done to the track between the two race weekends last season? Progressive banking was added to the turns. Turns 1 and 2, which previously had 11 degrees of banking, were changed to 10 degrees on the bottom and 11 on the top. Turns 3 and 4, which previously had nine degrees of banking, were changed to eight degrees on the bottom and nine at the top. The “dogleg” on the backstretch, which was more of a “jut” than a turn was transformed into more of a distinctive turn with the same banking as in Turns 1 and 2. The frontstretch was widened by 10 feet.
“So, it was like we all were coming in there expecting the worst-case scenario to unfold there last November,” Hornish said. “After getting there and logging laps on the track, I developed my own theory as to what had happened. It was a slick new surface that was made even more difficult to negotiate due to an incredibly hard tire and possibly some substance they had used in the process.
“I think everyone was extremely cautious when the Nationwide Series race began there last year – I know I was,” said Hornish. “I remember we had like an eight-car crash down in Turn 3 on the very first lap. Things started settling in and the groove got wider as the race went on. I’ll always remember getting around the No. 6 car (Ricky Stenhouse) on the outside on the restart with 60 laps to go. I had to hold them off – especially Brad (Keselowski) there at the end after I spun my wheels on that final restart.”
Hornish won his first big NASCAR race by 0.553 seconds over Penske Racing teammate Keselowski. It was a fitting location for his monumental victory. After all, it was on the picturesque track located around the Estrella Mountains where Hornish had won his first IndyCar race in 2001. He also made his first career Nationwide start there (in November 2006) and his first Sprint Cup start there (November 2007).
Hornish will be competing on both Saturday’s Great Clips 200 Nationwide Series race and Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 Sprint Cup Series race this weekend at PIR. Entering this weekend, he has made 17 overall Phoenix starts in the three series. In six IndyCar races, Hornish won twice and had three podium finishes. In his four Nationwide races, he has the big win and the sixth-place finish as highlights. In seven Cup starts, a ninth-place finish in the spring race of 2009 is his best result.
There’s nothing more that Hornish would like than to add a win in Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 to his resume.
“Phoenix has certainly held a lot of history as far as my career goes,” said Hornish. “Wouldn’t that be the icing on the cake if we can pull it off and get the Shell-Pennzoil Dodge into Victory Lane there on Sunday afternoon? That would be a dream come true, for sure.”
“We are really looking forward to this weekend at Phoenix,” said crew chief Todd Gordon. “Sam has always liked the tracks where the turns are different and you have to compromise in your setups. It’s a track where you don’t depend so much on the ‘aero aspect’ like you do at the bigger tracks.
“I understand that the track has continued to use their tire-rotator machine and other methods since we were there in the spring in an effort to get the track even better,” said Gordon. “I think every time we go there, the racing groove will continue to widen. It will be interesting to see if we get a second groove really going there this weekend. It’s a great track in a splendid location and the fan support there is tremendous.”
Hornish, Gordon and the Penske Racing No. 22 Team will be utilizing the “PRS-822” Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger in this weekend’s AdvoCare 500 at PIR. This is the chassis that the No. 2 penske team raced in the April 22 race at Kansas Speedway where Brad Keselowski started 11th and finished 11th. The “PRS-807” chassis will serve as the backup. It was the No. 22 team’s backup for last month’s Martinsville race and has yet to be raced.
Friday’s practice from 12:00 noon till 1:25 p.m. kicks off this weekend’s action at Phoenix International Raceway. Qualifying to establish the starting grid for Sunday’s battle is set for Friday at 4:10 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV) Saturday’s schedule features practice sessions from 9:30 a.m. till 10:25 a.m. and from 12:35 p.m. till 1:25 p.m. (live on SPEED-TV) Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 (500 kilometers/312 miles/312 laps) has a scheduled 1:00 p.m. local starting time (Mountain Standard Time) here on this 1.0-mile speed plant known as the Desert Mile. ESPN-TV and MRN Radio will provide live coverage of all the action.