A One In A Million Season

After the season he’s had, it’s hard to call Sam Hornish Jr. cocky or overconfident. He did, after all, run away with the Indy Racing Northern Light Series title after winning three times and finishing on the podium 10 times.

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:

  • Indy Racing League Achievement Award: Presented to IRNLS Transportation Coordinator Steve Keifer for his contributions to the success of the Indy Racing League.

  • Indy Racing League Special Recognition Award: Presented to Dr. Kevin Scheid, an orthopedic surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis for his outstanding work with injured drivers.

  • Chevy Rookie of the Year Award: Presented to Felipe Giaffone for leading the rookie standings in the 2001 season with 304 points in his No. 21 Hollywood G Force-Aurora. Giaffone finished sixth in the final Indy Racing point standings, the best result by a rookie since the league's inaugural season in 1996.

  • Pennzoil Chief Mechanic of the Year Award: Presented to Simon Morley, Panther
    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.

  • MBNA Season Pole Award: Presented to Greg Ray, who earned four MBNA Pole Awards during the 2001 season, more than any other driver.

  • EMCO Gears Out Front Award: Presented to Sam Hornish Jr., who led 765 laps this season in his No. 4 Pennzoil Panther Dallara-Aurora, more than 300 laps more than any other driver.

  • IRL Crew Most Popular Driver Award: Presented to Sarah Fisher, driver of the No. 15 Walker Racing Kroger Special Dallara-Aurora. She was voted the most popular driver in Crew and fan balloting throughout the season.

  • Championship Team Sponsor Award: Presented to Pennzoil, for the company's longtime primary sponsorship of Panther Racing, which won the Indy Racing championship this season with driver Sam Hornish Jr.

  • Championship Team Manager Award: Presented to Kevin Blanch, Panther Racing team manager for his hard work in helping Panther and driver Sam Hornish Jr. win the Northern Light Cup in 2001.

  • Promoter of the Year: Presented to Eddie Gossage, executive vice president and general manager of Texas Motor Speedway. Texas has played host to nine Indy Racing events since 1997, more than any other track, and its innovative promotion strategies have helped TMS draw the largest crowds in the series outside of Indianapolis.

  • Engine Manufacturers Recognition: Presented to Oldsmobile in recognition of Oldsmobile's fifth consecutive engine manufacturers' championship and its longtime commitment to Indy Racing.

  • Manufacturer Awards: These representatives accepted awards on behalf of their respective companies for achievement in Indy Racing:
    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
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