Season Review: Sam Hornish Jr

As a two-time IRL IndyCar Series Champion, Sam Hornish Jr. had few things left to prove in open wheel racing heading into the 2006 season.

In 85 career starts, he amassed a record of 14 wins, 45 top fives, 57 top 10s, six poles and 2,518 laps led – making him a clear candidate for the title of "Best American open wheel driver."

However, one victory eluded the Defiance, Ohio, native as he prepared for his sixth full season of competition; The Indianapolis 500.

It wasn’t that he just hadn’t won the event, Hornish had yet to taste any sort of success at the historic race - never completing the full 500 miles nor finishing inside the top-10 in six previous Indianapolis 500 starts.

In May, that changed.

After starting the campaign with three consecutive top-10 finishes, Hornish and his No. 6 Marlboro Dallara-Honda Penske Racing machine entered the “Month of May” with high expectations. His performance throughout the practice sessions for the event elevated his outlook even further, as he paced the majority of practice sessions prior to winning the pole position for the race.

Then, on a drama filled race day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the 27-year-old’s dream finally came true.

After overcoming a drive-thru penalty late in the event for driving off pit road while his fuel hose was still attached, Hornish found himself in third position behind rookie Marco Andretti and his father, Michael Andretti, with four laps remaining in the event.

Both Hornish and Marco Andretti had little trouble getting past Michael, setting up one of the most thrilling finishes in the 90-year-history of the event.

As the duo stormed to the finish line, Hornish was able to pass the rookie driver at the last possible second, winning the event by .0635 of a second.

"I thought that it was over when I didn’t get him going down into (Turn) 3," Hornish said. "But we dug down, put her back in there and took off.

"It’s a great feeling. I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I’ve had a lot of friends and family pass away over the last couple of years, and they rooted us on today, so I’m real happy with that. I want to thank Marlboro Team Penske. They did a heck of a job. It may not always go the way you want it to, but it makes it a lot sweeter this way."

Not only did the victory at the famed event propel Hornish past the $11 million mark in career earnings, becoming the first driver in series history to reach the financial point, but also gave him the necessary momentum to charge towards his third career IRL Championship.

Following Indianapolis, the Penske Racing driver rattled off five top-five finishes, including victories at Richmond International Raceway, Kansas Speedway and Kentucky Speedway. These results helped him overcome disappointing finishes at Watkins Glen International (12th), Nashville Superspeedway (14th) and Michigan International Speedway (19th), putting him just one point behind teammate Helio Castroneves by one point heading into the final race of the season.

While losing at Chicagoland to championship rivals Dan Wheldon and Scott Dixon, Hornish’s third place finish allowed him to pass Castroneves in the standings and put him in a mathematical tie atop the standings with Wheldon.

With his four victories versus Wheldon’s two, the tiebreaker gave Hornish his third title and first for Penske Racing.

"We went out there, trying to be as smart as we could and just keep up with the leaders," Hornish said. "It turned out we did everything we needed to do to win the championship."

"This is as excited as I've ever been. The first two came a little easier than this one."

Since claiming his championship in September, Hornish has remained busy – joining Dixon, Wheldon, Vitor Meira and Tony Kanaan in a compatibility test at Daytona International Speedway as well as getting his first taste of NASCAR action, racing in the final two events on the NASCAR Busch Series (finishing 36th at Phoenix International Raceway and 43rd at Homestead-Miami Speedway).

While it is appearing more and more likely that Hornish may be headed to NASCAR in the future, he has stated that he will be back in 2007 to defend his crown.

Will Sam Hornish Jr. be able to repeat as IRL IndyCar Series Champion? It all starts "under the lights" at Homestead-Miami Speedway on March 24, 2007.

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