The 2013 NASCAR Nationwide Series season is in full swing, and so far it is going amazingly close to how we have planned it. Part of that plan includes offering the readers of ESPN.com an opportunity to get a glimpse of what the life of a father/husband/son/brother/race car driver/TV analyst is like this season. So I'm happy to share some of those thoughts here in this first blog of the 2013 season.
Heading into Daytona I knew that our family life was going to go back to in-season hours, which means not being able to spend as much time with the girls (Addison, 5, and Eliza, 2) as I'd like to, so with that in mind we took the kids to Disney World.
Our time at Disney World was fun. We spent more than 12 hours there, seeing shows, going on rides and eating theme-park cuisine. The Mad Tea Party ride was a big hit with the girls, so we went on it a few times. The girls had a fantastic time spinning around, and I got a light arm and shoulder workout, so it was good for all of us.
On the team side of things, we had an incredibly busy offseason with the transition to the Ford Mustang, our new crew chief, Greg Erwin, and a lot of new faces on the No. 12 car crew. We have all been working hard, planning our strategy and revising our procedures in the areas that we need to improve.
I spent a lot of time in the Penske Racing gym and even more time getting to know Greg. I've been racing for all of my adult life, and I have to say that this is the most thoroughly prepared for a race season I've been since 2006, which was a remarkable year for us in the IndyCar Series. It feels fantastic, and so far it has been paying dividends.
We made it to Daytona in time to see the Sprint Unlimited, which I watched from the spotter's stand. It was neat to see the cars from that perspective, and it also gave me a chance to bond with our new spotter, Tab Boyd, as well as a renewed appreciation for the job he does.
It already seems like Daytona was a long time ago, even though it has been only a few weeks. Our Alliance Parts Ford Mustang was good there and we just missed getting the pole, but it was gratifying to start on the front row. The race was intense. We were able to push my Penske Racing teammate, Brad Keselowski, to the lead early in the race, but then we lost each other in the shuffle. About midrace, I had to lift to avoid a fellow competitor, and I lost the draft, which caused me to fall back quite a ways, as it is almost impossible to catch the pack at Daytona without a drafting partner. Luckily, I have an outstanding teammate, and he dropped back to pick me up, and we drafted our way back into the mix.
Over the last few laps, I hooked up with Tony Stewart, and it was looking good as we were running up front with just a couple of laps to go. Then on the last lap, Regan Smith and Brad teamed up and got past Tony and me, and then there was a massive crash. That crash obviously resulted in some fans getting injured, and we all felt so bad for those involved. We ended up finishing second and left Daytona leading the Nationwide Series point standings, which was a career first for me.
We flew back to Charlotte after the race, and Sunday morning I woke up and drove into work at my other job as an analyst on "Speed Center." I spend a pretty full day there following the racing in various series, doing the show and updates. Being in front of a camera with voices in your ear on live television is a lot more difficult than it looks. I have much more respect for the people who do it for a living, and I have learned quite a bit doing the show.
Our next stop was Phoenix, and with the way the travel schedule worked out I had a free day on Thursday. I ended up driving to Sedona with my dad. We went to see the spectacular rock formations that the area is known for, and we ate at In-N-Out Burger, so it was a perfect day.
The Phoenix race was a tough one. We didn't have a good handle on our Detroit Genuine Parts Ford. We qualified 19th, which set us up for an unusual race that saw us get caught up in a crash on the second lap. The front of our No. 12 Penske Ford sustained significant damage, and it took four pit stops to get it pounded into shape and taped together. Our pit crew managed to get the repairs made and kept us on the lead lap. That was a big deal, as that was one of the areas we addressed and worked on during the offseason. We restarted at the back of the field and were able to work our way through the pack, passing a lot of cars on track and a few on pit lane.
We worked on the handling of our damaged Mustang all day, the pit crew did outstanding work in the pits and Greg called a fantastic strategy. The team managed to turn what well could have been a disastrous day into a respectable seventh-place finish, and that allowed us to maintain in the top spot in the series standings (tied with Justin Allgaier).
Racing at Phoenix on Saturday and then flying back to Charlotte that night makes for a long day. Then getting up the next morning to spend time with the girls before going to work after just a few hours of sleep is difficult, but time with the girls is a priority, and we all have to work to take care of our families.
Our next stop was at Las Vegas, and wouldn't you know it -- it rained in the desert, which doesn't happen that often. The rain resulted in Nationwide Series qualifying being canceled, and it also diminished the amount of practice we had prior to the race. Instead of the scheduled three-and-a-half hours of practice on Friday, we ran only 45 minutes of practice Saturday morning. This ended up working out well for us, as our Wurth Ford Mustang was pretty good right away and with just a few changes it got even better.
The starting grid was set based off the 2012 owner points standings, which meant that we started the race from the seventh position. Early in the race we ran pretty well in traffic, but I wanted to see what our Penske Ford could do in clean air. About a quarter of the way through the race we restarted in third place after a caution, and the way it worked out I was able to make my way to the front on the restart. Our Mustang handled quite well in the clean air, so I was able to open up a nice lead.
From that point on we ran pretty consistently toward the front. And even after getting shuffled back a few times due to differing pit strategies, our car was strong, and I was able to drive to the front. We led 114 laps and won the race. It was awesome! We left Las Vegas with a 19-point lead in the standings, and we proved to ourselves that we can and will win races.
At Daytona we learned that our car had speed. At Phoenix we demonstrated that we can overcome adversity, and at Las Vegas we showed everybody that we are winners. We knew that it was essential to have a strong start to the season in order to contend for the series title, and through the first three races we have managed to do just that.
I will be checking in once a month here at ESPN.com so be sure to look for my blog, and if you have any questions, please ask them in the comment section. I will do my best to answer them.
Sam Hornish Jr. drives the No. 12 Ford Mustang for Penske Racing. He will share his thoughts on and off the track with ESPN.com readers periodically this season. Follow him on twitter @samhornish and on facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Sam-Hornish-Jr/74718995913?fref=pb