Consistency Pays For Hornish
September 5, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
Hornish, the 22-year-old phenom who replaced Scott Goodyear at Pennzoil Panther Racing this season, clinched his first Indy Racing Northern Light Series championship Sunday with a second-place finish in the Delphi Indy 300 at Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill.
The runner-up finish was the fourth for Hornish this year and was his ninth top-three finish in 12 races to go along with a fourth, sixth and 14th. That relentless attack gave Hornish the title earlier in the season than any other IRNLS champion before him.
Even Hornish is impressed.
“I think by any kind of racing, that's pretty spectacular,” Hornish said. “I give credit it to the Pennzoil Panther Racing Team. They put me in race cars that are absolutely spectacular. We may not have been the fastest at every race this year, but we ran up front.
“We've got a car that was consistent and that finished. That's the biggest key to going out here and winning the Indy Racing League points championship.”
Consistency is the key, for sure, but the turning point in the season may have been the Indianapolis 500 in May.
Hornish made his first, and seemingly only mistake of the year on Lap 18 when he spun his car on the exit of Turn 4 on a restart. Amazingly, no one hit Hornish, and he went on to finish 14th. It is his only finish outside of the Top 10 this year, but he was the seventh highest finishing IRNLS driver, thanks to CART teams and drivers sweeping the first six positions and non-regular Arie Luyendyk finishing 13th.
As a result, in Hornish’s worst race of the year, he still gained points on all but six of his competitors.
While Hornish has been getting the job done on the track, his Panther Racing team has performed flawlessly on pit road. Hornish believes that’s just another example of the team’s drive to succeed.
“Our goal is to go out there and win everything,” Hornish said. “Every time we go on the track, we want to be first. Whether it's practice, qualifying or the race, it doesn't matter. The guys show that in their pit stops. They do an awesome job. They get me in and out of there in good time.
“They take a lot of pride in that and that makes me feel good, and we're very happy coming in for a spit stop because I know I'm going to be as fast or faster than anybody else.”
Eddie Cheever Jr. finished third behind Jaques Lazier and Hornish at Chicagoland on Sunday, and he had nothing but good things to say about the new IRNLS champion and youngest open-wheel champ in the history of Indy-style racing.
“Beating (defending champion Buddy) Lazier was tough this year,” Cheever said. “Buddy was unlucky with two engine failures. But to beat him, that's quite an accomplishment. So I think he's going to be great.”
Buddy Lazier made a run on Hornish in the past month by winning four of five races at one time. Lazier also, however, finished outside the Top 10 four times this season.
“It wasn't a good shot, but it was a shot,” he said. “You never give up hope. We tried very hard, and I think my team did a super job defending the championship. You look at our record this year, every race we either won or experienced some pretty significant troubles.
“You know when we're on, we're on, but when we struggle, we struggle. Second in the championship is not a bad thing for how many failures we've had this year.”
Hornish will have two weeks to celebrate his IRNLS title and the $1 million bonus that goes along with it before wrapping up the season with the Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Anyone looking for a Hornish letdown will be mistaken. Even though he’s secured the title, Hornish is heading to Texas with a new mission now that he’s secured the IRNLS title.
“We can go and celebrate, relax for a week and go into Texas like it's the first race of the year, being able to go out there and just really try to win the race,” Hornish said.
Would you expect anything less from the IRNLS champion?