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Sam Hornish Jr. racing for NASCAR championship

FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2012, file photo, race driver Sam Hornish Jr. jokes with reporters as he fixes his hair before an interview session at NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach, Fla. When Hornish ruled the open-wheel world, he was constantly asked about a potential move to NASCAR. After four miserable years, the question has changed but is consistently asked of Hornish. FILE - In this Feb. 16, 2012, file photo, race driver Sam Hornish Jr. jokes with reporters as he fixes his hair before an interview session at NASCAR media day at Daytona International Speedway, in Daytona Beach, Fla. When Hornish ruled the open-wheel world, he was constantly asked about a potential move to NASCAR. After four miserable years, the question has changed but is consistently asked of Hornish. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)
By Jenna Fryer
AP Auto Racing Writer / February 24, 2012
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla.—When Sam Hornish ruled the open-wheel world, he constantly was asked about a potential move to NASCAR.

After four miserable years, the question has changed but is asked repeatedly.

"When I was in IndyCar, I think about 10 minutes after I won my first race over there back in 2001, everybody wanted to know when I was going to go to NASCAR. And then as soon as I came over here, everybody wanted to know when I was going back to IndyCar," Hornish said.

"I feel like if I wanted to go back to IndyCar, I probably could do that. If I wanted a ride in the Truck Series or if I wanted to start-and-park in Sprint Cup, I can probably do all of that. But I want to compete for race wins, and I want to compete for race wins in the Cup Series. So you have to take the logical steps to be able to do that."

Hornish is not going back to IndyCar. When he races in the Nationwide Series opener Saturday at Daytona International Speedway, it will be in a quest for a NASCAR championship.

It has been an interesting ride for Hornish, who left IndyCar at the end of the 2007 season as one of the most decorated American drivers in open-wheel history. He won three championships, 19 races and the 2006 Indianapolis 500.

Those statistics gave Hornish an overwhelming sense of fulfillment, and he made his move to NASCAR thinking there was nothing left for him to do in IndyCar.

On the flipside, those statistics nearly destroyed his career.

Hornish admits he felt immense pressure to be successful in NASCAR, and his inability to accept anything short of perfection severely harmed his development. Hornish had three rocky Cup seasons, tallying just eight top-10 finishes in 106 starts. His highest points finish was 28th in 2009.

"I felt like I had to have the success here that I had in IndyCars or everybody was going to consider it a failure," Hornish said. "I was more worried about what our sponsors and the fans thought. I still get people saying `Come back to IndyCar' every time I see them. There was a lot of pressure, I felt like, to go out there and be successful right off the bat."

But Hornish was right. It was impossible to keep sponsors happy running in the back of the field each week, and team owner Roger Penske ultimately ran out of funding for his one-time golden child.

Hornish was sent home for most of last year. As his friends and foes turned lap after lap in both IndyCar and NASCAR, Hornish watched from the couch. He spent time with his wife and two daughters, built a treehouse, restored an antique barber chair and hung out with his parents.

Penske was able to get him 14 races -- one in the Cup Series and 13 in the Nationwide Series car -- and Hornish rode a rollercoaster of emotions.

"It's tough watching everybody race every weekend while you are sitting at home. ... I watched most of the races on TV, and that was a little difficult," he said. "But I also spent time with my family. It was incredible. I wouldn't take it back. I got to do things that I hadn't been able to do in 10 years, and you can't ever look at that like a bad thing."

He has a fresh opportunity this year and believes he's going about his second chance the correct way.

Penske put together a Nationwide Series program for Hornish, and Saturday's season opener at Daytona International Speedway will kick off what Hornish hopes is a championship winning season.

"He's been real humble for the last 12-18 months, coming off being an Indy 500 winner, coming over here and aspirations to run up out front," Penske said. "Maybe I made a mistake putting him at the top when he couldn't practice, but the two of us decided to stay together. Obviously our goal is to run for the championship in Nationwide with Sam."

Hornish can rattle off a long list of things he and Penske should have done differently, including maybe only running Nationwide in 2008 and not forcing the issue in the elite Sprint Cup Series. But Hornish knows he also had to adjust his expectations.

In IndyCar, he set out every weekend to win, and nothing but a victory was acceptable. But that's not how it works in NASCAR, where the ability to crank out a decent finish can make a successful career.

"Roger says I'm my own worst critic. He'll tell me `You ran really good. Why can't you just be happy?'" Hornish said. "And I'm like, `because we didn't win. You want me to come in and be happy finishing 10th? I can't do that. We should be better.' But I'm able to see now that even if I get lapped five times in a race, it's OK as long as I sit there and learn instead of trying to beat my brains out and end up wrecked."

A breakthrough win in the Nationwide Series race at Phoenix last November pushed Penske Racing the final few yards toward putting together a strong Nationwide program for Hornish, and he believes he's finally ready to find the success that has evaded him in NASCAR.

In 13 starts last year, he had six top-10 finishes and his first career victory in a points-paying race.

"The races I ran last year, if we just kind of run that way this year, we'll be in the top five," he said. "We didn't have any chemistry because we weren't running every weekend, so I feel like we should be better than that this year. If we finish worse than third in the championship, I will be pretty disappointed."

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