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AUTO CLUB 400
The princess versus the pauper

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Tue, Mar 25, 2014

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

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Danica Patrick at the Auto Club 400 (Gabriela Moya)

By Brian Kennedy Sam Hornish has had a racing career most people would envy. He started out in Indy cars, racing from 2000-2007 and winning 19 of 116 races and gaining 47 podium finishes. He then raced a few years of Cup and got punted back to the minors, running Nationwide in 2012 and 2013. His winning ways from open-wheel racing were never reprised in stock cars, with just two junior series wins and none in Cup. Danica Patrick raced seven years of IndyCar, gaining just the one win and seven podiums in 115 finishes. She then put in parts of several years and one full year in Nationwide, netting one top five and seven top tens in 61 races. Her Cup career now stretches past 50 races with one top ten to show for itself. Hornish, by contrast, has competed in 99 Nationwide races with 53 top tens, 28 top fives, and two wins, as was mentioned. He has nine top-ten Cup finishes, three top fives, and no wins in 131 races. So you tell me whose numbers look better. That’s why it’s tantalizing to compare them when they turn up in the same race, especially when they get there through such different paths—both the success (Hornish) versus little success and the preparation and resources (Patrick) versus last-minute deal (Hornish) routes. Of course one should neither read too much into one race nor reduce what these two drivers have accomplished to one event. But the symbols are just too poignant to ignore, and it’s kind of fun to watch what’s going on back in the pack and not just in the lead, so here goes. Sunday morning, Sam Hornish woke up unemployed. That was still true around 11am. Shortly after that, he was contacted to go in for Denny Hamlin, suffering vision problems and being scooted off to the hospital with a sinus infection. Hornish had thus never been in the car he was going to drive at over 200 mph. He had not worked with the crew that had set it up and would service it. They had no idea what he liked, and he had no clue how the car would feel. It was a recipe for being a back-marker, if not destroying the machine. But he proved over the course of the day that he’s far more capable than that. Hornish started at the end of the field for the Auto Club 400 because he was not the one who qualified the #11 car; the primary driver, Hamlin, did. He quickly moved up, to 37th on the third lap. By lap five, he was 35th.

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Patrick ahead of Hornish at the Auto Club 400 (Gabriela Moya)

Patrick had qualified 27th, but she quickly slid backwards. On lap 16, Hornish was ahead of Patrick and Cole Whitt for 32nd spot, and they were in a pack. When the first caution came out at lap 20, he had taken 30th, and Patrick was 34th. On that caution, the teams took over, with Danica’s putting her out 33rd, one ahead of Hornish. She then charged ahead to spot 25 while Hornish could make up just three spots, to 31st. On the ensuing long green run, the two found each other, with Hornish in 28th spot and Patrick just behind. Another caution flew and Hornish managed to come out 20th while Patrick was 36th. Aha, the good guy had prevailed! But that wasn’t to last, as once the racing began again, they closed back up, with Hornish backing to 22nd and the other driver advancing to 27th. Was a collision, at least of wills, coming? By lap 51, it was she said-he said, with Danica 23rd, right in front of Hornish. Again, caution flew, and the crews put Patrick out 22nd and Hornish 26th. What could be read in here? At the least, that Hornish was holding his own. On the other end, that Danica was enjoying the privilege that a good team afforded her. But she wasn’t doing much with it. Near lap 100, Hornish was up on the wheel, finding 20th spot, and it looked like Patrick was going to settle somewhere near 30th, as she was 28th and stagnant. She would work her way to 19th by lap 130, drop back down to 32nd ten laps later, sit there for twenty laps, and be 19th at the lap 200 mark, when caution threw the race into OT. Meanwhile, the Pauper was 15th from 140-160, 14th after that, and then 12th at lap 200. During that time, Patrick was as low as 32nd, as was said. “What a job!” the observer who wasn’t paying attention to the woes of Jimmie Johnson, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, or the other frontrunners, might have said. To that fan, I would reply, “Good for you, realizing that racing is more than the sum of the leaders and what they are doing.” If only the race hadn’t gone long, my theory would have been proved right, with Hornish prevailing in this two-car tussle. Here was Hornish, an ever-the-bridesmaid kind of figure in the Cup series, doing something with nothing. Or, as my friend who used to work for the Bobby Rahal IndyCar team would say, making chicken salad out of chicken doo-doo (only he didn’t say doo-doo, because he was a big-time racer, and they can say “sh*t” if they feel like it).

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Sam Hornish in the pit (Brian Kennedy)

Hornish, our hero. Our man of the hour, who was wearing a giant watch in the car like it was a Sunday drive and seemed altogether out of sorts in terms of getting the interior fittings of the car adjusted as I observed him getting ready on pit road in a car that, as was said, he’d had no seat time in at all. And the Princess, much admired and often the feature of TV vignettes despite never having won anything (Okay, I know about that Indy victory, but that was luck and fuel strategy if you go back and read the history), was going to once again underachieve, or achieve a perfectly mediocre finish perhaps entirely worthy of her abilities. But just to show you that I’m not as smart as I think I am, she goes and finishes 14th, and Hornish drops three behind her. Now, this is still a triumph for him, and a good way to suggest, as the season goes on, that certain other drivers might be given their walking papers in his favor. But in many ways, it’s a triumph for Patrick, too, because given the level of competition and the fact that 24 cars were on the lead lap, getting a top-15 was no mean feat. And recognizing that she was scored as low as 39th and that 14th was her best lap of the day, at least on the ten-lap increment sheet that NASCAR gave out following the event, that’s not a shabby result. So to that little girl who was rudely treated by what appeared to be the team’s PR person (see my other story) before the race, a message: your darling isn’t a half-bad driver, if she could just be separated from the media BS that has made her a star for, at least to this moment, no particular reason at all. And to Hornish, good on ya, and may this be the start of something new and big, because it seems like you’re quite capable of doing a lot with whatever the heck they give you to work with. Read Brian Kennedy’s coverage of the Auto Club 400: NASCAR-razy! – Auto Club 400 weekend comes to town Auto Club 400 – Trackside with Jimmie Johnson BORING, THEN THRILLING – Nationwide Series at the Auto Club Speedway Auto Club 400 – Just focused on forward

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