SWITCHING TO NASCAR racing from open-wheel racing is not as smooth a transition as moving to a new league in baseball. Sure, the American League has the designated hitter, but it's still the same game.

The adjustment is difficult primarily because stock cars are much heavier than open-wheel cars.

Two years after parking his IndyCar, Sam Hornish Jr. is just starting to emerge as a contender on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Hornish, 29, is the only three-time IndyCar Series champion in history and a former Indianapolis 500 winner. Clearly, he was an outstanding open-wheel racer.

Last year, Hornish struggled in the Cup series: 35th in points, no top-10 finishes. At times, he looked lost on the racetrack. This year, with two top-10 finishes in the No. 77 Penske Racing Dodge, he has climbed to 26th in points. At Darlington last month, he qualified fourth.

"The team has given me better cars this year," Hornish said on a Tuesday conference call. "We have better horsepower and fuel mileage. Our pit stops are improved.

"It's like a ladder: I get a little better; the team gets a little better; the engines get a little better; and we just continue climbing up that ladder.

"We had a top-five car [Sunday at Dover]. We got caught two laps down, because we had to pit early with a tire that was coming apart. It took us until 30 laps from the end to get back on the lead lap. Once we did, we came in 13th."

Hornish isn't the only former open-wheel racer who has had problems adapting to NASCAR. Juan Pablo Montoya has needed two-plus seasons to be considered a Chase candidate (he's 15th in points). Dario Franchitti spent half a season in NASCAR, saw the team he drove for fold, and has returned to IndyCar racing.

What made Hornish pursue NASCAR?

"We got to the point where I wanted to try something new," he said. "I wanted to challenge myself. There was a lot for me to learn about driving a stock car, to run in a pack of 43 [cars].

"It's about perseverance. I've enjoyed the challenge. I could've fallen flat on my face, and there were days that I did. What kind of person would I be [though] if I didn't keep trying?

"[I thought] how do I make myself better? That's probably why the [No.] 48 team [Jimmie Johnson] is as successful as they are because it seems, no matter where they're at, they're never riding along. They're always trying to learn something new and make themselves better."

Hornish's goal this season is to finish among the top 20 drivers.

"At the beginning of the season, I wanted to be in the top 20 in points," he said. "We had a couple races the last couple weeks where we were a little bit off. I think the top 20 is still a realistic goal. If we keep running like we are, there's no reason why we shouldn't finish in the top 15."

Looking ahead to Sunday's Pocono 500, Hornish described his brief relationship with the track as "love/hate."

"The first time we went there last year, we qualified 41st and I think we finished 41st [actually, 42nd]," he recalled. "I absolutely hated it. I felt I was never going to figure it out.

"The second time, we came back after five or six races in between [where] I'd run well. I went [to Pocono] with some confidence, qualified 26th, ran in the top 10 and finished 26th.

"I love the track. It's unlike anything we run anywhere else."

Jeff Gordon update

Even before rain washed out last night's "Prelude to a Dream" racing program at Eldora Speedway, Tony Stewart's dirt track in Ohio, Jeff Gordon withdrew as a precautionary measure. He has been bothered by back pain, but will race Sunday at Pocono.

The race, a charity to benefit military organizations, was rescheduled for Sept. 9. Those who bought the race on HBO Pay-Per-View will get refunds.

Long short on cash?

Besides upholding Carl Long's 12-race suspension for using an oversized engine last month at Lowe's Motor Speedway, the National Stock Car Racing Commission fined crew chief Carl Swing $200,000, which is probably $170,000 more than he has. Long's team is a part-time entry on the Sprint Cup circuit.

This week's race

Pocono 500

Pocono Raceway, Long Pond, Pa.

When: 2 p.m. Sunday

TV/Radio: TNT/ESPN (950-AM), WNPV (1440-AM), WDSD (94.7-FM)

Race course: 2.5-mile trioval

Race distance: 200 laps/500 miles

Last year's race winner: Kasey Kahne

Last year's pole winner: Kahne, 170.219 mph

Track qualifying record: Kahne, 172.533 mph (June 2004)

Track facts: Brian Vickers was runner-up in last year's race; Denny Hamlin was third. Kahne led 69 laps, including the last 16 ... Carl Edwards won last year's second Cup race at Pocono ... Jeff Gordon's four wins at Pocono are the most among full-time active drivers; Bill Elliott has the most wins (five) at the track ... Hendrick Motorsports drivers have the most career victories at Pocono (11) ... Mark Martin, now a Hendrick driver, is winless in 44 starts at Pocono, but has six runner-up finishes.

Wins: Kyle Busch, 3; Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, Jimmie Johnson, 2 each; Jeff Gordon, Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski, Dave Reutimann, 1 each.

Sprint Cup Standings

Through 13 of 36 races

1. Tony Stewart (2 last week) 1853 -

2. Jeff Gordon (1) 1807 -46

3. Jimmie Johnson (4) 1789 -64

4. Kurt Busch (3) 1762 -91

5. Ryan Newman (7) 1680 -173

6. Kyle Busch (6) 1634 -219

7. Denny Hamlin (5) 1630 -223

8. Matt Kenseth (9) 1625 -228

9. Greg Biffle (10) 1618 -235

10. Jeff Burton (8) 1587 -266

11. Carl Edwards (11) 1582 -271

12. Mark Martin (12) 1567 -286

13. David Reutimann (13) 1536 -317

14. Kasey Kahne (15) 1501 -352

15. Juan Montoya (14) 1475 -378

Up next: Lifelock 400, June 14, Michigan International Speedway, Brooklyn, Mich., 2 p.m.; TV: TNT.