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Indy Racing League

Monday, July 7

DEI, Penske could come calling

Sam Hornish Jr.
Hornish Jr.
KANSAS CITY, Kansas -- Decision time is nearing for Sam Hornish Jr. as the two-time defending Indy Racing League champion determines the direction of his racing career.

Hornish could stay at Pennzoil Panther Racing if his agent, John Caponigro, is able to increase his salary with the team. Or he could end up at Penske Racing, where one official admitted "anyone would be crazy not to consider Sam Hornish Jr." as a driver, depending on the type of sponsorship.

And for the first time in months, Hornish actually is discussing the possibility of competing in NASCAR.

"NASCAR is an option. It's definitely possible," he admitted. "I don't have any room to say anything further. Whatever my decision is in the end, it's going to be what is the best opportunity for me and my best opportunity to win.

"There are people within the IRL that I have talked to and there are people outside of Indy car racing that I've talked to. I'm not at liberty to say who I have talked to and who I haven't.

DEI president Ty Norris said last month he did not think Hornish's heart was in a stock car career and that the driver wanted to remain in open-wheel racing. Norris had a plan of running Hornish on a limited Busch series schedule and a few Winston Cup races this season with a full-time shot at the elite series when it becomes the Nextel Cup in 2004.

"I want to be in the biggest series. I want to be in the series that gets the most attention and has all the best drivers because you don't want to be a big fish in a small pond," Hornish said. "But the IRL continues to grow. NASCAR is the biggest right now, but that doesn't mean the IRL can't grow and be the biggest right now."

Hornish refused to confirm with whom he has had discussions, but if an opportunity at Penske Racing develops, it would be a very good fit for the driver and team. However, both Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves are set with the team for next season, so it would have to be a third car.

"I was always a big Rick Mears fan when I was growing up, but I also liked Dale Earnhardt," Hornish said with a wink, continuing to give out mixed signals. "That's all up to the team owner, who the sponsor would be or anything like that."

Despite being winless this season, Hornish has impressed many team owners, fans and drivers because he is racing this season with a Chevrolet engine that lags behind dominant Toyota and Honda counterparts.

"You look at Hornish, you look at how the guy races and he is very, very good," said Scott Dixon, who drives for the Toyota-powered Target/Chip Ganassi Racing team. "I feel extremely sorry for him because the Chevrolet is destroying him. If he had a Toyota or a Honda, I'd have my hands full, big-time."

Hornish takes it in stride, realizing that the shift in power can be swift and dramatic. But it still easy to spot the true racers.

"You don't know how to take that, when people tell you what a great job you did," Hornish said. "Pancho Carter said the two races before Kansas City were probably the best two races I have ever run in, and that means a lot. Richmond this year, Richmond last year and Indy this year have been my best tracks.

"Over the past couple of years, when we were up against Penske for the championship, everyone thought the Penskes were dominant on the short tracks while I was good on the big tracks. But we won at Miami and Richmond, so we knew where we needed to be to win those things."

Hornish believes he's been one of facing's best drivers the last three years. Now he wants to be rewarded financially.

Panther Racing was able to get Hornish at a good time -- still early enough that he did not come with a big contract. Two IRL championships later, his price is about to go up dramatically.

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