LONG POND, Pa. - Thirteen races into his first full NASCAR Sprint Cup series season, Sam Hornish Jr. is 33rd in the points standings.
By Kyle Busch or Jimmie Johnson standards, 33rd is not very good. For Hornish, though, being in the top 35 in owners points with the No. 77 Roger Penske Racing Dodge means the Cup rookie doesn't have to rely on qualifying on time for races.
"We're heading in the right direction," Hornish said yesterday at Pocono Raceway before qualifying 41st for tomorrow's Pocono 500. "It's been tough, with so much going on, and you don't get a lot of time to test."
His best Cup series finish for Penske this season is 13th, in the Coca-Cola 600 on May 25 at Lowe's Motor Speedway. This followed a seventh-place finish in the 100-lap non-points Sprint All-Star race, also at Lowe's.
Hornish said these encouraging finishes are the result of recent testing by his team during the all-star break.
Most Cup rookies struggle, but Hornish, 28, is not your ordinary rookie. The Ohio native is the only three-time Indy Racing League champion. He won the Indianapolis 500 in 2006.
"The cars are the biggest adjustment," he said. "Nothing is similar, except they have four wheels and an engine. I knew it would be difficult, but I wanted the challenge.
"Everything I did before I came to the IndyCar world was [preparing] to be an IndyCar driver. If I had run late-models my whole life, I would've done a lot better [in Cup]."
Hornish is separating himself from the IndyCar scene. He said he watched parts of the Indy 500 before the Coca-Cola 600. Later, he viewed some Indy highlights.
"I got to watch it and not be nervous about it," he said, smiling. "The last 8 years, I had a lump in my stomach the month of May."
Kasey Kahne will start tomorrow's Cup race from the pole. Kahne's 170.219-mph clocking in the No. 9 Dodge outpaced Jimmie Johnson's 169.856 mph in the No. 48 Chevrolet. It's Kahne's first pole of the season. He holds the track qualifying record of 172.533 mph, set 4 years ago.
After collecting his 15th career pole Kahne said, "The car went through all three turns perfect."
Mark Martin, in a Chevy, was third fastest at 168.897 mph.
A repaved portion of the track between Turns 2 and 3 is attracting drivers' attention. Following last August's race, Dr. Joseph Mattioli, the raceway's board chairman, discovered cracks in the track during a walking tour. The repaved area - 3,800 feet long and 15 feet wide - is the fastest groove between those turns.
"It's three- or four-tenths faster to run the patch," Kahne said. "There's so much more grip there. Turn 3 is really flat. It's always been the hardest corner to get through. I think it's going to help cars get down the front straightaway."
Ex-Formula One driver Scott Speed was the fastest qualifier for today's ARCA series race. Driving a Toyota, he was timed at 167.094 mph. Speed traveled with Kyle Busch to last night's Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, where Busch finished second to Ron Hornaday Jr.
Asked his opinion on Kyle Busch driving in three races at three racetracks this weekend, beginning with last night's truck race, Cup driver Clint Bowyer said, "If I was running as good as Kyle is now, I would be racing snowmobiles somewhere on my off days."
Busch has won four Sprint Cup races, four in the Nationwide series and two in the Craftsman Truck Series. *