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Hornish still ahead of ex-CART drivers
By Jack Arute
Special to ABC Sports Online

Throughout the offseason, Sam Hornish Jr. and his Pennzoil Panther crew said all the politically correct things. They welcomed Team Penske to their IRL fold and looked forward to the challenge. On Saturday, Hornish and his crew did their real talking.

The defending race winner and Indy Racing League champ totally dominated the competition, winning the 20th Grand Prix of Miami in convincing fashion.

"It was a great feeling," said Hornish. "There was so much hype built up on whether or not the IRL guys would be able to compete. We just wanted to go out there and send a message."

Sam Hornish Jr.
Sam Hornish Jr., right, celebrates after his dominating win in the IRL's season opener in Homestead, Fla.
Roger Penske's two drivers, Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves, finished second and third, respectively, 4.7 seconds behind the Defiance, Ohio, native even after Penske gambled on fuel and kept his two drivers out during a caution on lap 171 so that they could take advantage of the IRL's rule that waves cars in front of the leader to the back of the restart line.

The gamble paid off nine laps later when Robbie Buhl's engine blew, bringing out another caution and allowing both de Ferran and Castroneves to take on the fuel they needed to finish the race. Yet it still wasn't enough.

Hornish's weekend started with a bout with the flu before winning his first career pole with a lap of 202.884 mph. His domination continued on Saturday when he led the race on four different occasions for a total of 168 of the 200 laps.

"Basically today the only time I didn't know if we had everybody covered was, I was in a pack of about eight cars, and was leading the race," explained Hornish. "The back of the car was moving around quite a bit because I was not going fast enough through the corner because I kind of got into the rhythm of how the other cars were running."

The win was important for teams who have supported the Indy Racing League since its inception in 1996. The addition of Marlboro Team Penske, Ganassi Racing, Larry Blair Racing and Mo Nunn Racing from CART in the offseason left many wondering if the CART expatriates would step in and dominate.

While Penske took second and third, Jeff Ward finished fourth in his Chip Ganassi G-Force, Alex Barron placed eighth for Blair and 2001 IRL Rookie of the Year Felipe Giaffone seventh for Mo Nunn. But Hornish's domination left everyone else wondering if anyone would be able to keep up with the third-year driver.

"We ended last year with a victory. That was really important to us because we knew that the guys would be really pumped up in the offseason," explained Hornish. "They went out there, and they worked 12-hour days. They made sure that the car was going to stay together. I wouldn't have ever expected that today we would have won as well as we did.

"But, you know, we have to keep thinking about the next race -- Phoenix. We like Phoenix, too, so hopefully it will go about as good as it did here."

That's not good news for the rest of the IRL. Last season Phoenix was the 2002 lid lifter and site of Hornish" first career win.

After a number of seasons where parity resulted in multiple winners, some domination by a driver like Hornish would be a welcome change for the IRL. The league still struggles for deserved publicity, and the remnants of its split from CART still affect some media member's coverage and perceptions.

At Miami, Roger Penske predicted to the Associated Press that within 36 months, CART and the IRL would end up in a merged situation.

"The issue is long-term -- we can't have two series," Penske said. "If they (CART) want to have an international road-race series, that's fine. But sooner or later, you've got to make a decision." Penske explained that the Indianapolis 500 provides the IRL with sufficient impetus. "If you can't play in the Super Bowl, you've got to look at what league you're in," he said.

After six years of staying the course and absorbing body punches, the IRL looks healthy and ready for all comers.

Jack Arute writes a column every Monday for ABC Sports Online.  HELP |  ADVERTISER INFO |  CONTACT US |  TOOLS |  SITE MAP
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 Sam Hornish Jr. takes the Grand Prix of Miami under caution.
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 Sam Hornish Jr. tells ABC's Jack Arute about his dominating performance.
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