Hornish: “We’ve got a great opportunity” at Homestead

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Sam Hornish Jr. battled to the final lap for multiple IndyCar championships in his open-wheel career, and he came away with three of them. But next weekend, he’ll be looking to notch his first NASCAR Nationwide Series title.

Hornish kept his hopes alive with a fifth-place finish today at Phoenix International Raceway, and while he’d like to have a closer gap than the eight-point deficit he has to NNS points leader Austin Dillon, the Ohio native is itching to head to Homestead-Miami Speedway and settle the fight.

“I think we’re ready,” Hornish said in post-race this evening. “We started working on our car for [Homestead] last week, so we got a little bit of a head start because our Phoenix car was already on its way out here. I feel like we’ve got a great opportunity down there.

“Eight points is a little bit more than I would liked to have to overcome, but from the time that the race started today until lap 200, it’s better than I thought it was gonna be, so I’m real happy with the determination that everybody put up.”

Hornish benefited Saturday from a call to leave him out under a caution with around 70 laps to go, which enabled him to grab track position after he had been on the fringes of the Top 10. The strategy gamble paid off, as Hornish was able to keep toward the front before coming home fifth.

Now, it’s all coming down to the final race of the year for himself and Dillon. That experience in itself is nothing new for Hornish, who claimed his second and third IndyCar titles (2002 and 2006, respectively) in season finales.

But when asked about the potential usefulness he could draw from those past wars, Hornish didn’t seem to put too much into it.

“Even back then, I just kind of went into the races and I did what I felt was necessary on those given days,” he said.

Hornish has had to endure some tough times during his transition to stock-car racing. But after a rocky start in the Sprint Cup ranks, he’s been able to perform well since going to full-time racing in the Nationwide Series.

However, he still doesn’t have a program lined up for 2014, which is why he’s hoping more for an opportunity instead of pure validation should he win the NNS title.

“I feel like this last year has shown something that I’ve known for a while, and it’s just me being able to back it up with the results,” he said. “We don’t have as many wins as we’d like to at this point, but I feel like being able to go out there and race against top level Cup guys and to race the way that we did today and throughout the season I feel pretty good about that.

“I’ve got my head held high on that one and we’re gonna continue to work hard to try to figure out how to continue to be in this sport as long as I can.”

Fernando Alonso likes NASCAR country, but he’s not leaving F1 any time soon

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Jimmie Johnson strolled into the Charlotte Convention Center and did a double-take when he saw Fernando Alonso hanging out in a hallway.

“What’s he doing here?” NASCAR’s seven-time champion wondered.

Alonso made the trip to North Carolina to make an appearance at NASCAR’s annual preseason media tour. No, a ride in NASCAR is not imminent, but the two-time Formula One champion is about to embark on his first major sports car race .

Alonso will race this weekend in the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for United Autosports, the sports car team owned by his McLaren F1 boss, Zak Brown. It was Brown who paved the way for Alonso to compete in last year’s Indianapolis 500, and he is helping the Spaniard knock prestigious races off his wish list.

Alonso spent about 10 minutes chatting with Johnson, and the duo was eventually joined by sports car aces Scott Pruett and Joey Hand, who were brought to the NASCAR event by IMSA to help promote the Rolex, and then Cup champion Kevin Harvick.

The meet-and-greet with Alonso was a thrill for Johnson. Alonso was equally impressed.

“The first time I heard his name it was probably 2003 on the NASCAR video game,” Alonso said Tuesday. “I used to choose him, not knowing him, just because of the car. I remember playing with another friend of mine, he likes a chocolate company I will not name now, and he was choosing that car and I was choosing Jimmie’s car.

“But that was the first time I heard of him, and obviously the success that he has in the years in motor racing, he became a legend of our sport, and massive respect.”

Johnson said he’s always been a fan of Alonso’s and spent some time telling Alonso how well he ran in the Indianapolis 500 last May. Alonso led 27 laps and seemed to be in contention for the win until his engine expired 21 laps from the finish.

“He handled himself so well, really did a great job, and I think brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “He brought worldwide attention to motorsports and it was really good for us here stateside.”

While in NASCAR country, Alonso was asked about potentially trying a stock car someday. It’s not something that could happen soon, he said, but it is something he’d like to at least attempt.

“Right now, it looks quite far. The driving technique and the experience all those guys have, it’s difficult for me to achieve that level,” Alonso said. “I will never know until I try, so I would like one day to test a car and after that, driving the car, I will know how enjoyable it will be in racing.

“Outside (watching), the races are great because they are all in a group, it is not predictable at all and until the last lap, you don’t know what is going to happen. We love watching from the outside, but I don’t know from the inside.”

Alonso has so far only had three days of testing at Daytona in the sports car to adjust to a closed cockpit, as well as driving at night and in traffic. Trying different series has been a thrill for him, and he’s still eyeing a way to get Le Mans on his schedule.

“It’s one thing that I would like to do, I would like to compete in the best races in the world, and Le Mans and is one of the top races,” he said. “If that day will be this year or not is still to be discussed, but maybe yes.”

More AP Auto Racing: https://racing.ap.org/