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Sam Hornish Jr. makes race with just a warmup lap to spare

Replacement driver gets the call in SPEED's Charlotte studio to replace Penske driver AJ Allmendinger at Daytona Sprint Cup race in under two hours.

- dscott@charlotteobserver.com
Sunday, Jul. 08, 2012

Sam Hornish Jr. was getting ready to tape a segment of a television show in SPEED’s Charlotte studios late Saturday afternoon when his cell phone rang.

On the line was one of his bosses, Mike Nelson, Penske Racing’s vice president of racing operations.

“I thought he was calling to harass me about my tie,” Hornish said.

Instead, Nelson told Hornish he was needed in Daytona Beach – and fast. Penske driver AJ Allmendinger had just been temporarily suspended by NASCAR for failing a random drug test, and a driver was needed for his No. 22 Dodge in Saturday night’s Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Compounding the problem was that the race was scheduled to begin at 7:48 p.m. and the call came at about 6.

“I had to tell the producer of the show that I had to leave,” said Hornish. “And off I went.”

Having a private jet at his disposal and close airport proximities helped Hornish, who had raced in Saturday’s Nationwide event at Daytona.

Concord’s regional airport isn’t far from SPEED’s studios and Daytona’s airport is right next door to the speedway.

“All the way up until the plane took off, we didn’t know if we were going to make the race in time,” said Hornish. “I said that I would tell the pilot to fly faster, but I’m pretty sure he was going to have the throttle pinned the whole way down.”

Hornish prepared himself for what would be a long, hot race by making sure he was hydrated for the event, drinking several bottles of water on the flight.

After the plane landed in Daytona Beach at about 7:30, Hornish was whisked a few hundred yards to the track, where he got into the car as the rest of the field rolled off pit road to start the race.

Hornish spent several minutes getting fitted into the car by Allmendinger’s crew. He finally made it onto the track with one warm-up lap to spare.

“The first 15 laps or so, I just rode around trying to get comfortable in the car,” said Hornish, a former three-time Indy Car champ whose brief stint as a Sprint Cup regular ended unsuccessfully after three years following the 2010 season. “The car felt great and had a lot of speed in it.”

That was until Lap 82, when Hornish’s car cut a tire and wrecked.

He would return to the race and finish 33rd.

“I’m disappointed for the guys,” Hornish said of Allmendinger’s crew.

Then he headed back to Charlotte.

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