Since there is no IndyCar racing here in Arizona this year, I decided to take the kids out to experience some Good 'Ol NASCAR action this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. Of course, I also wanted to see how Indy 500 Champions Sam Hornish Jr and Juan Pablo Montoya fared in their first and second respective Busch series races.
"One of the reasons I wanted to come over here (NASCAR) and try it was because I wanted another challenge, and today proved to be that," Hornish said.Challenge is certainly an appropriate word. On Friday Hornish had some really dreadful practices. He would come out for a lap or two, then go behind the wall, come out a few minutes later for another lap, go behind the wall, rinse, repeat. He probably got less than ten laps in his Dodge Charger in between having all kinds of adjustments done. Keep in mind they had been testing the day before as well, so this final practice would normally be used for racing strategies and track management.
On the other hand, Montoya seemed pretty well set and was racking up as many laps as he could on Friday. He was clearly more comfortable with his setup as he qualified in eleventh, while despite all the stops Hornish managed to quaify 27th out of 43 entries.
Before the race I spoke with some fans about their impressions of the open-wheel drivers. My sample group included a broad section, from a middle-aged couple who were living in an RV in the parking lot to a young lady who was wearing a hat that said "Hey F*** A**, Buy Me a Beer". The subject came up when they asked me the standard NASCAR greeting: "who you rootin' for?" I said "no one, I just want to see how Hornish and Montoya do." Everyone - I mean EVERYONE - gave me a look at that answer because I was probably the only guy there NOT rooing for a particular driver. Maybe I should have said John Andretti.
Regardless, the concensus of my informal survey seemed to be that Montoya will do fine in NASCAR while Hornish's arrival was met with total apathy. NASCAR fandom is largely a meritocracy, so until Sam shows some strong finishes he's just another rookie driver to them. Evidently Montoya's ARCA run and strong racing in his first Busch race have already won their respect.
This was apparent during the driver introductions as Montoya recieved as loud a cheer as most drivers - and from what I could tell it wasn't just from non-caucasians. Hornish on the other hand was met with a mild golf clap, and I think I was one of the two people clapping. Sam looked uncomfortable, although that could have been because he knew he was in for a long day.
As the race progressed, it was very clear the two drivers were headed in different directions. Hornish brushed the wall early in the race and struggled all day, spending much of the early part of the race race staring at "Cheerios" on the back bumper of Erin Crocker. As a side note, Crocker made about 20 pit stops (that is not an exaggeration) and was still ahead of Sam for much of the day. He probably made only a handful of passes and appeared to be trying to simply avoid contact. Don't let the fact that he moved up to around 20th at one point fool you, because that was due entirely to other cars spinning or suffering mechanical failure. He wasn't passing anyone, and I don't remember the last time he had THAT kind of day.
Montoya on the other hand was driving exceptionally well. I say this not because he was passing a lot of people - which he was on occassion - but because he deftly avoided about four different accidents. Whether it was driving instinct or simply reflexes, I and others were extremely impressed at how he was able to keep the car in one piece on such a narrow track. He didn't have the fastest car, but he was nearly in the Top 10 for much of the day.
‘‘It’s tough passing these guys — they seem like they don’t see you, they just sort of play dumb,’’ he said, standing a few feet away from his battered No. 42 Texaco/Havoline Dodge. ‘‘When you run up front, the guy up front runs a lot cleaner, a lot smarter. The guys in the back are just too dumb. I’m trying to keep the car in one piece and it’s very hard, because, yes, I am a rookie — but no, I am not a rookie.”To try to get an idea of what was his biggest challenge I tried listening to Hornish on the race scanner, and it seemed he and his spotter were not discussing too much. Maybe they didn't want to overload the guy with info on his maiden voyage or maybe he just didn't feel like talking constantly about having a push in the car. By comparison Montoya and his spotter were practiacally a Woody Allen film, chatting all day long about the track and the other drivers around him. And yes, they were speaking in English.
When it was all said and done, Montoya finished in 20th after losing position late in the race while trying to avoid an accident. Hornish was not so lucky, as he was collected in a wreck not of his own doing with 20 laps to go to place him 35th. They will race against each other again at Homestead next weekend at the conclusion of the series.
While Montoya has decided to go the Cup route next year, Sam will be back in the IRL. If it's a challenge he wants then this weekend shows he will certainly have it if he decides to try NASCAR, but it should also be noted the additional road courses in the IRL's 2007 schedule will create a significant challenge to his defense of of the IndyCar series championship. In 2008, Sam will have to decide which challenge is more appealing.