Sam Hornish Jr. hasn’t raced on the lightning-fast 1.54-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway quad-oval track in two years. He is certainly looking forward to his return to AMS for Saturday’s NRA American Warrior 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race and Sunday’s AdvoCare 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series battle.
“I like Atlanta Motor Speedway a lot and I can’t wait to get back there to race this weekend,” said Hornish, who started 21st and finished 30th during his most recent race there in the Sept. 5, 2010 Emory Healthcare 500. “I’ve always enjoyed racing at Atlanta ever since I raced there in the Indy Racing League back in 2001.
“Just like always at Atlanta, it’ll be important to hit your marks and get a good rhythm going,” said Hornish, “but it’s also a track that you can search and find a good line to get around the place. Atlanta is unlike several of the tracks we’ve been racing on recently where there was just one fast groove that you needed to stay in. Atlanta is a track where you’ll likely see several different lines working during the course of the race. I really enjoy that aspect of racing there. You can race all over the track – from up at the top to down on the bottom.
“I know that having the opportunity to race in both the Nationwide and Cup cars will be beneficial for this weekend overall and I’m so grateful to have the opportunity,” Hornish said. “Our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge team has been working so well with Brad’s Miller Lite Team while I’ve had the opportunity to drive the 22 car. I know we’ll be leaning on our teammates quite a bit this weekend, especially since it’s been two years since I’ve raced there.”
In his six prior Sprint Cup starts at Atlanta, Hornish has a 32.0 average start and a 29.8 average finish. He has completed 92.7 percent (1,827 of 1,971) of possible laps. He is hoping to lead his first lap there in Sunday’s race.
“Atlanta is another track where we’ve been more competitive that what our record shows,” Hornish said. “The track surface has worn to the point where tire management comes into the equation. Since I haven’t raced there in a couple of years, I know the track is as abrasive as ever. It presents a big challenge to all the drivers and teams, but it promises to present some great racing for all the fans there in the stands and the folks tuning in on TV and the radio.”
Hornish’s experience on the Hampton, Ga., track is not limited to his Sprint Cup competition. He started fifth and finished 15th in the March 17, 2007 Nicorette 300 NASCAR Busch Series race. Hornish started seventh and finished ninth in the Oct. 28, 2006 International Race of Champions (IROC) Series race.
Hornish was a budding young 21-year-old racer when he started sixth and finished fourth in the April 28, 2001 zMAX Atlanta 500 Classic Indy Racing League race. He circled the AMS track in 25.956 seconds (213.596 mph) in qualifying for that race. What does Hornish remember most about that racing weekend?
“I remember saying that we just didn’t have enough speed in qualifying,” chuckled Hornish, who saw a lap of 218.265 mph (25.400 seconds) claim the pole there that weekend. “It was really cool to be racing with the Pennzoil colors (for Panther Racing) on the car there as a young driver looking to make a career in racing.
“It’s gonna be such a thrill to come back 11 years later and be behind the wheel of a Pennzoil-sponsored car again,” said Hornish. “We probably would have won that race in 2001 if they hadn’t run me out of fuel. But, we had a strong run there and just missed a podium (top-three) finish that weekend. We’re out to make those guys (Shell-Pennzoil) proud of our performance again on Sunday.”
Crew chief Todd Gordon believes that having his driver competing in both races this weekend can pay bigger dividends than ever. Gordon and Hornish huddled at the Penske shop on Monday afternoon to discuss the challenges this weekend’s Atlanta visit presents.
“This weekend’s schedule offers us the ultimate opportunity to get prepared for Sunday’s race,” said Gordon. “We practice and qualify on Friday and then have two Saturday practices to get our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge race-ready for Sunday. The fact that we are racing on the same tires in both the Cup and Nationwide cars this weekend is great. The time frames and conditions for both races should be parallel, so Sam will have a great feel for the car there on Sunday. It’s just going to be a big help all the way around.
“Like Sam and I discussed at the shop today, our biggest challenge will be to get a setup that’ll give us a great balance throughout the whole run there on Sunday night,” said Gordon. “Tire management certainly will come into play. I know Sam is really looking forward to competing in both races this weekend. I think we can have a very competitive weekend in our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge at Atlanta.”
Hornish, Gordon and the Penske Racing No. 22 Team will be utilizing their “PRS-828” Shell-Pennzoil Dodge Charger this weekend at Atlanta. This is a brand new car for the “Double-Deuce” team. The “819 car” will serve as the backup. This is the same car that AJ Allmendinger raced in the April 1 Goody’s 500 at Martinsville (started 27th and finished second). The team originally planned on racing this chassis at Pocono in the June race, but chose to race the car they utilized in testing (PRS-814) there instead.