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Indy Racing League

Tuesday, August 19
Updated: August 24, 10:25 AM ET
Penske among Cup suitors
By Robin Miller
Special to

Robin Miller Sam Hornish Jr. didn't say he was leaving the Indy Racing League for NASCAR next year during Tuesday's national teleconference, but the American star of the all-oval open-wheel series gave every indication he was following Tony Stewart's career path.

A day after announcing he would end his successful three-year run with defending IRL champ Panther Racing, Hornish all but said his next challenge would be with a roof over his talented head.

And all signs point to Roger Penske's multipurpose operation being his next stop.

"People come to a point where, even though things are good, you want to step outside and try something new," replied Hornish when asked what the deciding factor was in his decision to leave Panther Racing.

"I've been sick about it for the past week and I'm still sick today. But there are a lot of great opportunities out there."

When asked about leaving the IRL without its brightest star, the 24-year-old native of Defiance, Ohio, said: "It's weighed on my mind a lot of times. I'm trying to make as many people happy as I can and I've got to make myself happy, too.

"NASCAR has been a possibility for quite a while now and I get 50-50 from the fans. Half say they can't wait to see me (in NASCAR) and (half) want me to stay. You want to run where the fans are going to come watch you.

"I'd feel different if I was the first guy to do it. Tony Stewart won the (IRL) title and did something different. Kenny Brack won the IRL championship and did something else. If I was the first guy to do it I'd feel really bad."

Then Hornish hastily added he hadn't made any announcement yet but that he was "pretty close" to a deal. Any deal would have to include the Indianapolis 500 so that immediately narrows the field of candidates.

Tony Stewart, Sam Hornish
Hornish, in the green car, followed race-winner Stewart in the 2002 IROC event at Daytona.

Dale Earnhardt Inc. announced earlier this year it was pulling out of the Sam Sweepstakes, while Michael Andretti's IRL team was interested but doesn't offer a NASCAR alternative. Chip Ganassi wanted to make Hornish an offer for stock cars or Indy cars but his sour relationship with Hornish's agent, John Caponigro, squashed any chance of that happening.

A Joe Gibbs ride would be good for Hornish should Stewart leave Gibbs for Ganassi before 2005. But Gibbs currently has no Indy 500 program.

The likely candidate for Hornish's services all along has been Penske, who fields a pair of cars in Winston Cup and the IRL. Everyone assumed the two-time IRL champ would be snatched up by "The Captain" for the IndyCar series but now it's looking like he'd be teammates with Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves only at Indy.

"No matter what I do, I want to run the Indy 500," said Hornish, whose record nine IRL wins don't include the May classic. "I will make sure I have the opportunity to go there and race because it's the race to win if you're an open wheel driver."

Penske, who runs Dodges in Winston Cup for Ryan Newman and Rusty Wallace, would likely bring Hornish along like former USAC champion Newman -- starting him in ARCA and Busch with only a couple of Cup appearances.

Asked why he feels he's prepared for NASCAR, Hornish stated:

"You don't know. If that's what I were to do the only way to find out is to put yourself in the seat. How did I know I was going to do in Indy cars when I came out of Toyota Atlantics? I didn't know.

"I did pretty good in IROC on some big tracks and struggled on the ones where you had to keep the tires under you. They say a great driver can do good in any series and I think there's a little truth to that.

"But you never know if you've done the right thing until you've done it. So we're going to find out."

" It would be a sad day for open wheel racing if Sam left. He drives like crazy, he's a good looking kid and he's well spoken. Sam brought a lot of the party. "
Mario Andretti

Caponigro, who represents Mario and Michael Andretti plus Al Unser Jr., is thought to be after a three to five-year deal for Hornish, who was rumored to be making less than $500,000 this season at Panther Racing. Obviously, Panther took a chance on him in 2001 and it paid big dividends for both because now Hornish is ready to be compensated accordingly.

"It's not about the money," insisted Hornish, who refused to even hear an offer from Panther Racing. "Opportunities aren't always measured in money. There are outside things and other relationships.

"Panther always kept me happy inside and outside the race car. It's a wonderful organization and I consider them my friends. There is no conflict, I just want to try something else and I don't know if it was a surprise to them.

"I think it's about what they were prepared for."

Of course, open wheel doesn't need another loss to NASCAR. Hornish would join Stewart, Newman, Jason Leffler, Robby Gordon and Jeff Gordon in the exodus to NASCAR.

"It would be a sad day for open wheel racing if Sam left," said Mario Andretti, who put Hornish together with Caponigro. "He drives like crazy, he's a good looking kid and he's well spoken.

"Sam brought a lot of the party."

But it sounds like this party is moving south.

Robin Miller covers open wheel racing for ESPN and

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