FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) – Smoke billowed from the rear tires when Sam Hornish Jr. lost control of his No. 77 car on the backstretch at Texas Motor Speedway.

While replays showed Jimmie Johnson narrowly avoiding the latest Hornish mishap, one commentator called him “Spinning Sam” on national television. That’s probably not the nickname Hornish had in mind when the former IRL champion made the move to NASCAR, but his spin with about 100 laps to go in Sunday’s Samsung 500 kept intact a statistic that seems like a misprint.

Hornish, who figured to have the talent to run with the best at any level, hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any of his 43 Sprint Cup races, the equivalent of more than a year in NASCAR’s top series.

Gear heads can rub their eyes all they want. The stat is right. Funny thing is, Hornish isn’t all that surprised.

“I would have thought we would have had a little more success by this point, but it’s not been a thing where I’m going, ‘Man, this is so much harder than I thought it was,”‘ Hornish said last week. “This is why I wanted to do it. I had the opportunity to come over. I was like, ‘I’m going to regret it someday if I don’t try this.”‘

It would have been easy to decide otherwise. Hornish was a rock star on the IRL circuit, usually running up front while winning 19 races, three series titles and the 2006 Indianapolis 500. The Roger Penske driver was the IRL’s youngest series champion at 22.

Hornish clinched his first two IRL titles by winning the season finales at TMS. Last week’s trip to Texas was simply the latest installment of his new reality series. Fans have to scan the track trying to find him. When he’s running 12th, like he was at the time of the spin, he gets tempted to go after that elusive top-10 finish.

Such was the case last June at Michigan, probably the closest Hornish came to ending his top-10 drought. He says he didn’t expect to do much that day but ended up leading laps after starting 35th and spent plenty of time in the top 10.

Then he started thinking top five and ended up spinning out a few laps before the end of the race. He ended up 22nd.

“It’s probably going to be a day when we don’t expect it,” said Hornish, who turns 30 in July. “Long story short, I didn’t think we were going to have a very good day that day and really it was one of our better days. It was also a big learning thing as far as keeping myself in check.”

Hornish knew there would be a lot to learn. In racing, he grew up preparing himself for Indy cars, feather-light compared to stock cars and with engines in the back instead of the front. It’s been especially tough on the shorter tracks, where there’s a lot of braking and it’s easy to wear out tires.

Races like Texas fit Hornish better because they’re similar to the oval racing that dominates the IRL schedule. But the Sprint Cup races are much longer, another area where he’s had to adjust. His Texas spin, from which Hornish recovered to salvage a 17th-place finish, came just about the time IRL races end at TMS.

“They’re all very long. There’s so much more that can happen throughout a race,” said Hornish, whose career-best finish is 13th last year in Charlotte. “So much of it is keeping yourself on the lead lap for 80 percent of the race and racing hard for the last 20. I feel like we would have had a lot more top-15 finishes if I would have been able to do that last year.”

Johnson, winner of the last three Sprint Cup titles, and four-time series champion Jeff Gordon also aren’t surprised by Hornish’s struggles, but not because they think he doesn’t have the talent. Just to illustrate the complexities, Johnson throws around phrases such as “surface plate” and “spring rate” and “body displacement.”

Translation: It’s not as easy as it looks.

“So it’s real tough to pinpoint what it is,” Johnson said. “From driving on the track, you can see Sam’s putting 100 percent in each lap.”

Johnson remembers his breakthrough coming in Atlanta his rookie season, when he finished in the top five. But Gordon didn’t want to talk breakthroughs. The Hornish story, he believes, is told through the transition from Indy cars to stock cars.

“The longer you’re in the other type of car, the longer it’s going to take you to adapt,” Gordon said.

There are no indications that Hornish is on a deadline. He’s bemused by talk that he’d want to go back, noting ironically that for five years people wanted to talk about when he would jump to NASCAR while he was among the elite in the IRL.

Tim Cindric, a Penske team strategist whose history with Hornish dates to his IRL days, said Hornish has never expressed a desire to return to the IRL. He gauges the driver’s progress by looking at Juan Pablo Montoya, the 2000 Indy 500 winner and former Formula One driver who joined NASCAR full time two years ago.

In his rookie year, Montoya won on the Infineon road course – similar to Formula One layouts – and last year he finished 25th in points. Through seven races in his second season, Hornish is 31st in points.

Hornish believes the transition would have been easier had he been plugged in to an existing team. But Penske wanted to use him to start a new team, so the process essentially started from scratch.

“It’s like a big puzzle we’re putting together,” Hornish said. “I know we can get there if I have enough time to learn everything that I need to learn and we get everything put together. We’re just not there yet.”

AP-ES-04-08-09 1359EDT


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