Penske, Hornish turn mistake into milk

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) – Big surprise: Roger Penske made a mistake. Not such a big surprise: He won the Indianapolis 500 anyway.

Indy’s most successful owner made an error that could have cost himself and Sam Hornish Jr. the race Sunday. But he made up for it with some good strategy and coaching to coax his driver to victory over Marco and Michael Andretti.

The star-crossed Andretti family fell to 1-for-54 at The Greatest Spectacle In Racing. Penske? He won for the 14th time.

“It was certainly my mistake,” Penske said of the error on lap 150 that sent Hornish from first to eighth and set up his dramatic climb back to the top.

The folks at Penske Racing have always prided themselves on being on the cutting edge. They are one of the few teams who use radio communication to coach their drivers in and out of pit road.

During a caution on lap 150, Penske was hoping – as all teams do – to keep things moving and he started yelling “Go! Go! Go!” through the radio to Hornish before the fuel nozzle had been removed from the car.

Over the next few ugly seconds, chaos ensued. As he pulled out, Hornish knocked down a pit-crew worker, who fell to the ground and had to be doused with water. Then Penske ordered his driver to stop while the crew got the nozzle out of the fuel tank.

“First I tell him “Go! Go! Go!’ Then I tell him to stop,” Penske said. “It was completely my fault.”

The IRL penalized Hornish for leaving his pit box with equipment still attached, ordering him to make a 60 mph drive through the pits when the green flag came out. Then came Penske’s stroke of brilliance: With the caution still in effect, he decided to bring Hornish back into the pits to top off his fuel.

It was that decision that helped Hornish avoid a later pit stop, and that, in turn, helped him get in position to pass the Andrettis over the final three laps for the victory.

“I’ve got to thank God for giving me a lot of talent,” Hornish said. “Not so much that I can drive, but that I didn’t want to give up.”

Given his past – six starts and not a single finish – nobody could have blamed the 26-year-old from Defiance, Ohio for giving up, especially the way this race unraveled.

After the mess, though, Penske kept coaching and Hornish kept driving.

“That’s the great thing about long-distance racing,” Penske said. “You get a chance to come back under yellow flags and pass arounds and things like that. We were on the lead lap. We looked at the calculations. We saw we could do it.”

His advice to Hornish was simple.

“I told him, “Take your time,”‘ Penske said. “I don’t remember the exact words, but I knew we had some laps to go.”

Still, the driver with arguably the best car was in eighth place. All signs pointed toward another great opportunity lost, not a chance to kiss the bricks.

“Obviously, we didn’t want that to be part of the race strategy,” Hornish said. “But once that happened, how do you fight back? How do you get back in there? I went out there, saved fuel, made good decisions, got the yellow flag when we needed it.”

The last caution came with 10 laps to go.

As a result of the fuel strategy, Hornish and Michael Andretti were the only leaders with enough fuel to finish the race without a late pit stop.

Two laps after the restart, Hornish easily overtook Andretti, who fell to a heartbreaking 0-for-15 at Indy. That left a two-man battle between Hornish and Marco Andretti, who had pitted but moved his way back into contention.

On the next-to-last lap, Hornish made one attempt to pass, but was stymied. A lap later, with the finish line in sight, he juked toward the top of the track, and passed at the bottom, just in time to finish half a car length ahead.

It was the second-closest finish in the 90-year history of the race.

“I literally put my hand in the air, thinking he had won the race,” said Michael Andretti, who watched the scene from the third position. “Then it was like, where did he get that speed? It was like Hornish had a button in his car and he pressed it.”

A little later, Hornish had a wreath around his neck and the Andrettis were talking about another heartbreak. Penske left as he so often has – a winner. But that’s certainly a game plan Team Penske hopes to never use again.

“It may not always go the way you want it to,” Hornish said, “but it makes it a lot sweeter this way.”

AP-ES-05-28-06 1831EDT

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