Hornish hopes May is his month

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DOVER, Del. (AP) — Sam Hornish Jr. has always found his way in May.

In the open wheel series, he won the Indianapolis 500. In NASCAR, he’s twice raced his way into the All-Star race.

But that May success hasn’t translated into prestige victories — and results — since Hornish made the full-time shift to stock cars in 2008.

Though the Indy 500 win in 2006 catapulted to him to one of his three open-wheel titles, his non-points win last season in NASCAR has yet to help him find his way into Victory Lane in any of the 36 Sprint Cup races that count in the standings.

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Hornish doesn’t regret the move to NASCAR, even as the smallest of successes have been hard to find.

“We’d like to do a lot more with where we’re at,” he said. “We’ve gone to places this year where I’ve felt if we made a change here, a change there, that we’re capable of running in the top five. It’s just getting there and doing it on a consistent basis. Once you start doing it, you know what it takes from each weekend.”

Hornish has failed to find the right combination in his first three years. The results are glaring on the back of those slick pictures outside the hauler that bill Hornish as “The Man” and are there for fans to use for autographs.

The Hornish Highlights: 19 wins in open wheel, 10 poles, one Indy 500 win, three championships. On the left-hand side, his numbers for Cup races and Nationwide races include no poles, no wins, no championships, just seven top-10 Cup finishes.

Hornish has added 12 more starts this season to his career total — with no more top-10s.

“The unfortunate thing is, there’s been so many people that were so used to me winning all the time over there that they expected that it was going to happen right away over here,” he said. “They’re negative about it at times and it puts me in a bad mood. I’d like to be a lot farther along than what we are right now, but that’s not been in the cards so far.”

He hopes to start changing his results this week at the Showdown and the All-Star race. Hornish qualified for the All-Star race in 2008 after a second-place finish in the showdown and won the qualifying race last season to compete against Cup racing’s best.

Hornish would have automatically qualified for the All-Star event had he won a points race last season or this season.

“We’d always like to have it taken care of before we get there,” he said. “It’s nice because it’s been a place that’s been to good us and hopefully we’ll be able to race our way into it again this year.”

Hornish has run into a wall off the track, as well. ExxonMobil, his sponsor, announced it was ending its relationship with Penske after this season.

Team owner Roger Penske is working to line up a deal for Hornish and remain a three-car team. It’s still not clear what Penske will do to fill the gap for Hornish created by ExxonMobil’s withdrawal, prompted when Shell came aboard to sponsor teammate Kurt Busch.

Hornish was diplomatic about the sponsorship shuffle, calling it “best for the team.”

“We’ve had a couple of meetings with some companies, just giving them an opportunity to meet me and to see what kind of person I am. What kind of ambassador I can be for their brand,” Hornish said.

While Hornish didn’t expect to dominate NASCAR from his very first season, he’s become increasingly frustrated with his time at the back of the field. He smacked the wall Sunday at Dover International Speedway and finished 34th.

He’s had three straight finishes in the 30s and hasn’t finished higher than 13th this season. Hornish’s average finish is 26.3.

He hasn’t quit and returned to open-wheel racing like Dario Franchitti did after an ill-fated stint in NASCAR. Hornish hasn’t developed into a serious to threat to win either, like former Formula One star Juan Pablo Montoya.

His laborious transition doesn’t make Hornish nostalgic for his days of dominating the Brickyard.

“I don’t miss it at all, actually,” he said.

“I enjoyed being at Indy. But now, the Indianapolis 500 for me is almost like I’m a kid again. I get to go back and enjoy it. Not to say I didn’t enjoy it when I was over there, but there was a tremendous amount of pressure.”

There’s a different kind of pressure on him now. Hornish’s stock car development comes not like a rising young star on smaller tracks, but every week on the Cup circuit, from Daytona to Dover to Talladega.

“Instead of doing it when I was 15 to 18 years old on the short track, I’ve had to do it on the top level,” he said. “On the one hand, it’s great because you’re on the top level. The other hand, all the mistakes a lot of other people made growing up where nobody sees it, everybody sees it with me. I’m at the top form over here.”

He expects to take the checkered flag eventually. Until then, Hornish will be satisfied with incremental progress.

“Everything about it, whatever form of racing it is, it’s going to be enjoyment for me again,” he said. “You’ve got to find your little victories until you can find your big ones.”

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