It seems a very long time ago that we saw Sam Hornish Jr. in unbeatable form in an IndyCar, on his way to two series championships and victory in the biggest motor race in the US, the Indianapolis 500. But at long last he was back in victory lane again on Saturday, and for the first time in a national-level NASCAR event.
"Every 10 years, I guess, I get to come to victory lane here for the first time in a different kind of car, so it's pretty special," he said. "I'm just so happy!"
It's taken Hornish 142 attempts to make it, but when it happened on Saturday on the one-mile oval Phoenix International Raceway in Avondale, Ariz. it evetually proved remarkably easy for Hornish, who led with ease for the entire last 60 laps of the 200-lap race. Most importantly, he kept himself clear of a number of accidents that beset the field on the newly repaved and reconfigured track that's been giving all the Cup and Nationwide Series drivers headaches trying to get on top of it throughout the weekend.
The wrecks started very early: eight cars were involved in an accident in turns 3 and 4 of the very first lap, with Danica Patrick spinning and Brian Scott, Ron Hornaday, Johnny Chapman, Reed Sorenson, Tim Andrews, Jeff Green and Matt Frahm all getting involved. Half of them were unable to continue, and the race also lost another four cars before lap 15 with a variety of issues including a problem with brakes for Scott Speed on lap 6.
Reed Sorenson was the next to exit the race on lap 34, when a tyre going down sent him into a hard smack against the wall at turn 2. That resulted in a major blaze under the hood of the car on the right front, and Sorenson made a swift exit from the #82.
Up to this point, polesitter Aric Almirola had been comfortably in the lead, but during the next green flag stint he was challenged by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. who finally took over at the front on lap 67. He'd opened a comfortable lead over Almirola and third-placed Carl Edwards by the time the third caution came out on lap 83 for DJ Kennington slamming the wall, after a problem with his own front right tyre.
Stenhouse kept the lead at the restart and was still in front on lap 129 when a violent wreck involving Derrike Cope and Mike Bliss brought out the fourth yellow. Stenhouse won the battle off pit road ahead of Hornish, with Keselowski and Joey Logano now up in third and fourth positions while Elliott Sadler had made up eight positions into fifth with a two-tyre gamble in his bid to stay in touch with Stenhouse in the Nationwide title race.
Hornish was simply too good at the restart and powered around Stenhouse on the outside - an interesting indicator, given the Cup drivers' concerns about the reported lack of a second groove at the newly repaved raceway this weekend. Hornish would stay in the lead from then until the end of the race and the chequered flag, but it wasn't an end to the cautions.
First there was a fifth caution on lap 143, when contact from Steve Wallace's Toyota sent James Buescher's Chevrolet spinning into the frontstretch wall. Then on lap 161, Morgan Shepherd spun between turns 3 and 4 and collected Robert Richardson Jr.
But the worst was on lap 174, when Jason Leffler and Aric Almirola closed up on the rear of Sadler's car in turn 3. Too intent on his own battle, Leffler gave a light tap on the back of the #2 which sent Sadler spinning, collecting Almirola against the wall and leaving Leffler no where to go but into the wreck that he'd sparked. Morgan Shepherd and Jeremy Clements also ended up running into the mess, and a ten minute red flag was required for the clean-up.
"I'm sure that the video shows that the #38 just ran right into the back of us," said an angry Sadler afterwards. "Not much respect for guys running for the championship. It's very frustrating. You work all season long to put yourself in a situation, and it all goes away in a split second."
"I was racing Aric, but I take full responsibility," admitted Leffler. "I ran right into the back of [Sadler]. It wasn't on purpose. It was a mistake on my part ... He's a good driver, a smart driver, so obviously he lifted early to keep from blowing the corner."
There were still 20 laps to go when the race did finally restart with Sam Hornish Jr. ahead of Brad Keselowski, Carl Edwards, Joey Logano: that quartet went on to finish in exactly that order, but fifth-placed Clint Bowyer lost places to Roush Fenway Racing youngsters Stenhouse and Trevor Bayne before the chequered flag came out.
In the Nationwide Series championship, Sadler's late-race crash all-but handed Ricky Stenhouse Jr. the 2011 title, as the young Roush Fenway Racing driver is now 41pts ahead of second-place Sadler in the points. Justin Allgaier, Aric Almirola and Reed Sorenson are all over a hundred points adrift of Stenhouse and out of the running.
Further back Ricky Carmichael avoided the on-track incidents to make it to the chequered flag in 15th place in the Saturday evening race - having already been involved in one wreck too many during the weekend when his road car was badly damaged on the local highway on Friday night.
The front of Carmichael's car was caved in by a flying tyre from another vehicle as he and his wife drove to dinner on State Highway 85 in Buckeye, Ariz. shortly after 6pm local time.
"Two cars in front of me swerved," explained Carmichael on Saturday. "The actual car in front of me got sideswiped. When he did, it blew his left front off, and the tyre was floating in the air like a torpedo. I was trying to get out of the way of the truck and the tire just hit our car.
"It's probably the scaredest I've ever been for my life, to be honest with you," he said, but fortunately neither he nor his wife - nor a third passenger in his car - were injured in the incident and Carmichael went on to compete in the race as normal. "I definitely cheated something really bad there. Really, I don't even like to think about it."
Full race results and positions