A One In A Million Season
October 8, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
But the 22-year-old’s words Sunday during the IRNLS championship banquet probably sounded a little inflated to some and downright scary to others.
“I think we're going to have an even better year next year,” said Hornish, who picked up the Northern Light Cup and a $1 million bonus for capturing the series’ sixth title. “I know when it comes around to the beginning of March, we'll definitely be ready to go again.”
That’s bad news for his competitors, especially if the Pennzoil Panther Racing team can just repeat its performance. Improvement really isn’t necessary to capture a second straight title in 2002.
Hornish was the epitome of consistency, finishing every race with a worst performance in the all-important Indianapolis 500. Even though he spun out early, Hornish rallied to finish 14th, which was seventh among IRNLS regulars because the first six positions were occupied by CART teams and drivers. His other 12 finishes were in the Top 10, with 11 of those in the Top 5. Also, Hornish finished all but seven laps in 2001.
“It's been a great season,” Hornish said. “The Pennzoil Panther guys have done a great job.”
Of all of his performances, Saturday’s may have been the most unlikely. Hornish dominated on a Texas Motor Speedway track that is supposed to be the most competitive on the circuit. He led 17 times for 114 laps after starting from the pole, turned in the fastest leading race lap and spent the least amount of time in the pits.
Runner-up Scott Sharp was impressed.
“Honestly my hats off to Sam,” Sharp said. “I did not think he could pull it off.”
The win was especially sweet to Hornish because he hadn’t won since April 8, when he drove to victory at Homestead, which hosts the season-opening race next season.
“It means so much to me to come back here and win the final race of the year,” said Hornish, who became the youngest open-wheel champ ever at 22 years old. “Some people think I was laying back just trying to collect points and win the championship, but I was out there pushing for the win and sometimes we would just finish second or third.”
Actually, it was most of the time.
Panther Racing co-owner John Barnes marveled at the accomplishments of his young driver and team.
“It's just been one of those years," he said. “Somebody asked me earlier does this remind me of any other championship year? I think only Al Unser Sr. in 1970 does it compare to.
”We finished all but seven laps of all laps in competition. We led the most laps by probably two or three hundred (764-438 over Buddy Lazier). To take Sam in only his second year, actually year and a half, of IRL racing, it's just been tremendous to watch him.”
Hornish feels that his time in the all-oval series ha paid off, and he’s grateful for the opportunity.
“Since I came in the league, I've tried to show I'll do anything,” he said. “I want the league to succeed. It means a better livelihood for me. It would mean I'm always going to be able to race and have a place to race. It has given me my first shot at a major open-wheel series and being able to run at the Indianapolis 500.”
Next season, Hornish may have more than a chance to just run the Indy 500, he’ll most likely be one of the favorites.
Awards Banquet Winners:
Racing chief mechanic, for his skill and leadership for Panther Racing and driver
Sam Hornish Jr., who won three races and the Northern Light Cup in 2001.
John Biddlecomb, G Force Technologies Ltd.
Caterina Dallara, Dallara Automobili
Peter Digby, Xtrac Ltd.
Bernard Dudot, Infiniti Sports
Al Speyer, Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc.
Brad Stout, Delphi Automotive Systems