For Sam Hornish Jr., the Nationwide Series championship was tantalizingly close.
Ultimately, a validating title slipped through the 34-year-old’s fingertips as a controversial series of canceled restarts slowly ticked away late laps under caution, leaving him little time to make a final push in the Ford EcoBoost 300.
“Some was the driver’s fault and some was the team’s fault and some was out of our control,” Hornish said.
Hornish trailed Austin Dillon by eight points in the championship standings entering Saturday, but a pole-position start, 10 spots ahead of Dillon, gave Hornish hope when the engines fired. With Dillon careful to avoid trouble, Hornish was on pace to capture the championship early, and the two traded the projected points lead for most of the night.
“We had it for most of the night and I knew that Austin was obviously trying to take care of everything and make sure that he made it to the end,” Hornish said. “Then you had that late caution and a lot of guys had tires and came.”
Laps 184 to 195 of the 200-lap race were run under caution after a multicar wreck initiated by Regan Smith. The pace car turned off its lights several times, signaling the imminent restart, but time and again, the restart was waved off as aftermath of the crash was cleaned.
Meanwhile, Hornish’s No. 12 Ford was locked in position, ahead of Dillon in the race but trailing in points.
“Everybody on the radio was getting all flustered that there wasn’t a red flag and that there were so many laps of yellow,” Hornish said. “It just seems like most of the time we would have stopped.”
Several others, including owner Roger Penske, said they were surprised that the red flag never came out, but Hornish didn’t obsess over the decision.
“We weren’t good enough [Saturday] to go out there and to win the race, even though we felt like we were a top-four car,” Hornish said.
Danica Patrick’s first season on the Sprint Cup series began in dream fashion.
After winning the pole at the Daytona 500, Patrick met milestone after milestone, becoming the first woman to lead a lap at Daytona and the first woman to lead a lap in any NASCAR race under the green flag. Her eighth-place finish is the highest ever for a woman at Daytona.
But Patrick has yet to meet the lofty expectations set by that season-opening performance.
Although many fans expect commercial appearances and hype to translate immediately into victories, the Roscoe, Ill., native enters Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 ranked 27th in the points standings, indicative of a year of adjustment and mixed success.
“There is a tremendous amount that I still need to learn for sure and a lot of stuff that I need to work on for making the weekends more smooth,” Patrick said.
“I need to be able to identify what is happening with the car better every time I’m in it so that I can help more. But at the end of the day, the natural speed that is in the car does need to continue to get better. I think this weekend was a show of that so far.”
After steadily improving from 2010 to ’12 in the Nationwide Series, Patrick made the jump to full-time Sprint Cup competition this year, greatly upgrading the quality of her competition.
“That is what is tough about the Cup — you can’t be a little off,” Patrick said. “The difference between a good and a bad weekend is so much [smaller] than in the Nationwide Series or anywhere else.”
Country music artist Toby Keith will be the grand marshal for Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, ordering the drivers to start their engines for the final time in 2013. Fellow musician Dierks Bentley will play a concert before Sunday’s race in Homestead’s infield, starting at 12:30 p.m.