The 2012 season saw Sam Hornish Jr. solid but winless in the NASCAR Nationwide Series, despite ending 2011 on a high note with his first career win. Just three races into 2013, it's already another story entirely. Saturday, the driver of Penske Racing's No. 12 rolled into victory lane at Las Vegas for his second NASCAR win.
His win didn't come easy. Though Hornish led four times for a total of 114 out of 200 laps, he was hotly pursued by Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Brian Vickers, the former attempting to score his second straight victory in the series after dominating at Phoenix. The threat of the hometown hero snagging a win coupled with the possibility of fuel mileage becoming a factor by race's end created a formidable match for the Defiance, Ohio, native, Hornish prevailed in the Sam's Town 300.
Lady Luck didn't smile on a number of drivers during the race. Perhaps the most notable stroke of bad luck was the race's final caution, which saw rookie Kyle Larson total another car after getting caught up in a wreck with fellow youngster Joey Gase. Overall, the caution flag flew eight times for 37 laps, five of those for crash-related incidents.
Winning pushed Hornish into the overall points lead after entering the race tied for first with Justin Allgaier. He now leads the standings by 19 over Allgaier, who could only manage a finish of 15th, one lap down.
<div style=\"float:right; width:275px; margin: 20px; border: black solid 1px; padding: 3px;\"><img src=\"http://www.frontstretch.com/images/15519.jpg\" width=\"275\" height=\"178\"/><p style=\"margin: 3px; text-align: left; font-weight:bold;\">Sam, Hornish, Jr. was the class of the field in the Sam's Town 300, leadin 114 laps en route to his second career victory.</p></div>
Victory at his home track eluded Busch once again, but the driver of the No. 54 still finished a close second, followed by teammate Vickers in third. Trevor Bayne recovered from an early scuffle with Larson to finish fourth, while Elliott Sadler rounded out the top five.
<b>Sam Hornish Jr.</b> is rarely thought of as a major contender in the points race, but after a strong second half in 2012 and great start to 2013, it's time to change that. Many have said that in order for Hornish to win the championship, he simply had to win more. A win in the third race of the season isn't bad, is it? Plus, while it's early, a 19-point lead over second is sizable. Look out, Joe Gibbs Racing.
Vegas saw <b>a lack of Cup regulars</b> in the field despite it being a companion event. Besides Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Brad Keselowski were the only other major competitors, and Earnhardt wasn't even a factor at all, experiencing a flat tire late in the race to set him back, while Keselowski had a vibration mess up his day. Many cars sometimes housing Cup regulars either had younger guys (see: No. 33, Ty Dillon; No. 5, Brad Sweet) or didn't even travel to the track at all (see: No. 18).
<b>Brad Keselowski</b> seemed to have something for his teammate, but after leading 18 laps, his No. 22 started a vibration that eventually ruined his day, relegating him to a disappointing 37th-place finish, 58 laps down. Luckily for Hornish, the same problems didn't affect his No. 12 to the same extent.
<b>Eric McClure</b> kicked off 2013 with his first-ever top-10 Nationwide Series finish, a cool feat for a guy who's been running for quite a while. In the succeeding two races? 29th at Phoenix with an engine issue, and now a 40th in Vegas after an oil pump ended his race before it had even really began. It's a tough break for a veteran driver whose season started off on such a high note.
Three races, two wrecked cars. The year hasn't been kind to <b>Kyle Larson</b>, though his final result of 32nd was not his fault. While racing for the lead with Trevor Bayne, Bayne drifted up the track, clipping Larson's No. 32 and sending him into the wall. And later, Ryan Sieg ran into a slowing Joey Gase, knocking Gase into Larson's car and finishing it off entirely. Larson's bad luck puts him a mere 14th in points, which is a tough hole out of which to climb, despite it being only the year's third race.
<b>Rain</b> canceled both Nationwide and Cup Series qualifying Friday, ending the weekend prematurely for Brendan Gaughan and Kevin Swindell, whose teams were showing up to the track for the first time in 2013. You have to feel for Gaughan especially; not only is Vegas his home track, but he also has a good history at the speedway, finishing fifth in a Richard Childress Racing car one year prior. And Swindell had been impressive in Biagi-DenBeste Racing's No. 98 during a limited trial in 2012; Vegas could have been more of the same for the part-time team.
<b>Underdog Performer of the Race:</b> After becoming a casualty of the qualifying rain-out in Cup, <b>Mike Bliss</b> kept his No. 19 – a back-up car from teammate Eric McClure – out of trouble, coming home 17th overall. Considering McClure's misfortune, I think his fans, who dub themselves \"Blissfits,\" were mighty excited indeed. Alternate shoutout goes to Ryan Sieg, who finished 18th in only his second Nationwide start, subbing for Jeremy Clements.
Start-and-parkers occupied two of the 40 starting positions in Saturdayâs race, taking home $29,230 in purse money.
Cup regulars scored one of the top 10 finishing positions, occupied four of the 40 starting positions, and took home $117,475 in purse money.
<b>The Final Word</b>
Kyle Busch didn't win. Is that good enough?
Hint: It sure is. And Sam Hornish, who was on the cusp of breaking out in 2012 but never really got there completely, won a race and leads the points by a wide margin.
Vegas didn't answer a lot of questions, nor did it pose many, but it has continued to establish Hornish as a guy to beat in 2013. Chances are he won't be throwing a Cup ride into the equation halfway through like he did last year, so the added focus might do well for him. If Saturday was any indication, he's a force to be reckoned with, especially if he can continue to drive past Busch as he did.
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About the author
Amy is an 18-year veteran NASCAR writer and a five-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found filling in from time to time on The Frontstretch 5 (Wednesdays) and her monthly commentary Holding A Pretty Wheel (Thursdays). A New Hampshire native living in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.