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Dream Finish
June 05, 2006
With quick thinking and a bold move, Sam Hornish Jr. made his Indy fantasy come true, beating rookie Marco Andretti to the line
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June 05, 2006

Dream Finish

With quick thinking and a bold move, Sam Hornish Jr. made his Indy fantasy come true, beating rookie Marco Andretti to the line

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They were small-town boys when the dream began. As a nine-year-old in Defiance, Ohio, Sam Hornish Jr. blasted a go-kart around the miniature dirt track in his backyard and pretended he was outracing Indy 500 giants A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Johnny Rutherford. Growing up in Nazareth, Pa., the grandson of racing legend Mario Andretti and the son of Indy Car champion Michael, Marco Andretti was even younger when the reverie first took hold. At the age of four he was playing with Matchbox cars and already imagining himself charging to the lead at the Brickyard. "When my dad came to race [at Indy], I'd be hanging out in my room at the hotel at the track," the 19-year-old Marco recalled last Thursday. "I could hear the cars outside while I played with my cars inside." � On Sunday, heading into the final turn of the final lap of the 90th running of the 500, Andretti and Hornish were living out their childhood fantasies. With the sun-drenched crowd of 250,000 on its feet, Andretti--the most promising Indy driver of his generation--roared out of Turn 4 with a lead of two car lengths over Hornish. The 26-year-old Hornish, a two-time Indy Racing League champion, pushed his car to 219 mph and thought, I'm either going to pass him or crash trying. Racing down the frontstretch in a Marlboro Team Penske car that possessed superior aerodynamics, Hornish dove to the inside and edged past Andretti 250 yards before the finish line, winning by .0635 of a second--the second-closest finish in Indy history.

"Oh, my goodness! Oh, my goodness!" exclaimed Hornish's normally reserved team owner, Roger Penske, in Victory Lane. "It's finishes like this that make me believe that open-wheel racing can make a comeback. What a race!"

Indeed, 10 years after U.S. open-wheel racing bitterly split into two competing series--the IRL and CART (now known as Champ Car)--Sunday's electrifying finish provided another boost to a sport that is still riding the wave of media attention focused on Danica Patrick since she nearly won last year's Indy 500. ( Patrick ran well all day Sunday and finished eighth.) The next step in winning back fans would be a merger between IRL and Champ Car. In fact, IRL chief Tony George, who also owns Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and Champ Car co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven have been communicating daily by telephone and e-mail since December, trying to reach a deal that would bring U.S. open-wheel racing back under one umbrella, perhaps as soon as 2007. On Sunday the two men watched the Indy 500 from George's suite above the start-finish line. "Done the right way, unification could be just what open-wheel racing needs," George said on Friday. "We could eliminate confusion among fans and have stronger cars, stronger owners and stronger drivers."

In a field that featured six former winners, Hornish, who started from the pole, proved to be the strongest driver at Indy--quite a turnaround from his previous six starts in the race.

Growing up in Defiance, 165 miles from the Brickyard, Hornish had posters of Penske, whose cars have won a record 14 Indy 500s, and driver Rick Mears, a four-time Indy winner, on his bedroom walls. But once Hornish became an IRL racer, his fortunes at his home track did not approach his heroes'. In one start for PDM Racing and three for Panther Racing, Hornish placed no better than 14th in four 500s from 2000 through '03. He signed with Penske in '04 and crashed in his next two trips to Indy.

This year it appeared Hornish might be snakebitten again, when, during a pit stop while the race was under caution on Lap 150, the fuel hose got stuck in his car. There was no damage to the vehicle, but because Hornish left his pit stall with equipment still attached to his racer, he was penalized by officials: He would have to make another run down pit road once green-flag racing resumed, a 60-mph detour that would cost him a lap. Before the drive-through, however, with the caution still in effect, Hornish ducked back into the pits to top off with fuel while the rest of the field stayed out on the track. This meant that Hornish, unlike most of the lead cars, would not have to make a late-race stop for fuel and would cycle back into contention.

As the final laps unfolded, there was the familiar sight of an Andretti in the lead at Indy. In his 14 previous starts in the 500, Michael, who came out of a two-year retirement for this year's race, had led a total of 426 laps and come tantalizingly close to winning a half-dozen times. On Sunday he seized the lead with four laps to go but was quickly passed by Marco on the frontstretch. The youngest driver in the field, Marco brazenly blocked a surging Hornish on the penultimate lap, nearly causing a wreck in Turn 3. But Marco simply didn't have enough speed to prevent Hornish from passing him. "I have a lot of shots left," Marco said afterward, "but [I learned] from my dad's career that you have to take advantage of every one of them."

Two hours after the race Hornish rode through the infield in a golf cart on his way to a reception at the Penske hospitality tent. He jumped off when he spotted Mears, and the two met in a tight embrace. "You made me really proud today," said Mears. "That last move was as good as it gets."

"Thanks," Hornish said, grinning at his racing idol. "I've been waiting for this for a long time."

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