MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Sam Hornish Jr. drove the No. 22 Shell-Pennzoil Dodge to a 13th-place finish in today’s TUMS Fast Relief 500 here at Martinsville Speedway. Even though the result matched his best career finish on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ shortest track (also finished 13th here in spring race of 2010), Hornish wanted more.
“It was a solid run for our Shell-Pennzoil Dodge, but we wanted more than we got out of today,” Hornish said. “It’s frustrating to be running up in the top 10 and see it slip through your fingers like that. You wonder if maybe two tires would have been the best way to go instead of the four we took there at the end. We were really strong on long runs and the car was the tightest it was all race long during those last few laps. The guys did a great job on pit road today and we had a strong car. We just wanted more than what we got out of the day.”
Hornish started 27th in today’s battle, after posting a qualifying lap of 19.669 seconds (96.273 mph) in Friday afternoon’s qualifying session. Fighting a “tight in the center” handling condition and water temperatures that hovered around 290 degrees for much of the race, Hornish made steady progress during the race.
With cautions coming at a regular pace allowing pit stops to be made under the yellow, Hornish had climbed to 22nd after the first 100 laps. His big move forward came when crew chief Todd Gordon made the call to stay out during the fourth caution period. That shot him up into the top 10 for the first time of the day as he lined up 10th for the Lap 156 restart.
Hornish had fallen to 13th on Lap 199 when a Marcos Ambrose spin brought out the fifth caution of the race. After a four-tire-and-fuel stop that included air pressure and track bar adjustments, Hornish was 12th on the Lap 205 restart. He moved back into the top 10 after staying out during the seventh caution period of the race, but had fallen to 13th at the halfway point on Lap 250.
The Shell-Pennzoil Dodge was strongest on the longest green flag run of the race. During a stretch of some 160 laps between the seventh and eighth cautions of the race, Hornish was on the move and turning the fastest laps on the track. The period featured the only green-flag pit stops of the race and Hornish was running a strong ninth when the stops cycled around on Lap 366.
Points contender Denny Hamlin had a strong car early in the race and was able to bounce back from two speeding penalties. However, his day faded with mechanical issues as his car stalled on Lap 392 to bring out the eighth caution of the day. After a 12.02-second pit stop for four tires and fuel during the yellow, Hornish was 10th for the restart with 100 laps remaining.
When Juan Pablo Montoya spun out of Turn 2 on Lap 438, the ninth caution flag of the race was displayed. A 12.1-second pit stop for four tires, fuel and an air pressure adjustment had Hornish up to eighth for the Lap 446 restart. He was still having a solid top-10 run going (running ninth) with 25 laps remaining when Kevin Harvick’s blown engine brought out the 10th yellow flag of the day.
Various strategies were played during the laps under the yellow. Brad Keselowski and Dale Earnhardt Jr. opted to stay out, while all the other lead lap cars took on either two or four tires. The “Double Deuce” team went with four tires and lined up 12th for the restart with 18 laps to go.
The final caution of the day flew on Lap 491 when Carl Edwards and Earnhardt went spinning in Turns 1 and 2. Hornish was 11th on the restart with five laps remaining, but the tight handling condition took its toll. He was able to hang on and cross the line in the 13th finishing position.
Up front, it was Jimmie Johnson taking the victory by 0.479 seconds over Kyle Busch. Kasey Kahne finished third, with Aric Almirola fourth and Clint Bowyer fifth. Keselowski, who started 32nd here today, finished sixth, with Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte and Greg Biffle rounding out the top 10. Ryan Newman, Paul Menard, Hornish, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch completed today’s top-15 finishers.
With three races remaining on the 2012 schedule, Johnson is the new points leader. He holds a two-point advantage over Keselowski (2,291 to 2,289). Bowyer is third and 26 points behind Johnson, with Kahne fourth (2,262 points) and Hamlin fifth (2,242 points).
The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series now heads back to Texas Motor Speedway for next Sunday’s running of the AAA Texas 500. Friday’s practice from 11:30 a.m. till 1:00 p.m. kicks off this weekend’s action at TMS. Qualifying to establish the starting grid for Sunday’s battle is set for Friday at 3:40 p.m. local (live on ESPN2). Saturday’s first practice is scheduled from 2:00 p.m. till 2:50 p.m. and the final “happy hour” practice session is scheduled from 4:45 p.m. till 5:45 p.m. (on SPEED). Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (334 laps, 501 miles) has a scheduled 2:00 p.m. local starting time (3:00 p.m. ET) on the 1.5-mile Dallas/Fort Worth Area speed plant. ESPN-TV and PRN Radio (also on Sirius-XM NASCAR Channel 90) will provide live coverage of all the action.