LEXINGTON, Ohio (AP) — Sam Hornish Jr. thinks he has a home-track advantage.
Sam Hornish Jr. drives through a corner during practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Nationwide Children's Hospital 200 auto race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course Friday, Aug. 15, 2014 in Lexington, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tom E. Puskar)
"While Mid-Ohio is so close to my home and my heart, at the same time it's a place where I've got almost as many races here as a fan as I do as a driver," the Defiance, Ohio, native said Friday during practice a day before the NASCAR Nationwide series race.
Hornish, who has raced several times in competition at the track, believes he has some insider knowledge.
"I feel like I've got a good idea of what the car needs to do and what I need to do as the driver to go out and be successful here," he said. "Yeah, we want to go out and be fast. But the biggest thing about this form of racing — running on a road course — is taking care of the equipment."
Hornish, one of the series' top drivers on tracks that require more than right turns, finished with a rush a year ago at Mid-Ohio. He made a run at the lead on the final lap before ending up behind AJ Allmendinger, winner of the inaugural Nationwide event, and pole-winner Michael McDowell.
He could have applied even more pressure, he said, if Allmendinger hadn't been one of his Penske teammates.
"I had to play a little bit nicer than I probably would have," he said with a laugh. "All that being said, I feel pretty good about the car that I have."
Hornish, with no fulltime sponsor but driving this week for Joe Gibbs Racing in the Monster Energy Toyota, has dreamed of winning at the twisting track located in picturesque farmland midway between Columbus and Cleveland.
His odds improved when Allmendinger elected to focus on the Sprint Cup race in Michigan this weekend. Hornish was third during Friday's practice behind Justin Marks and Chris Buescher. Qualifying is Saturday morning, with the race later in the day.
One of Hornish's chief adversaries figures to be series points leader Chase Elliott, who has never driven at Mid-Ohio.
He watched videos and memorized notes from last year's race provided by driver Ron Fellows, with whom he has studied the nuances of road courses.
Even though he finished fourth at Road America and sixth last week at Watkins Glen on road courses, Elliott hasn't been pleased with his efforts. But he is hoping that he's getting the hang of the quick braking, rapid acceleration and sharp turns that are required on such a layout.
"I'm just putting all that stuff together and making sure I do a good job," he said. "I'll get all the practice that is offered. I'll try to learn and hopefully it'll be good enough."
Elliott, at the wheel of owner Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Chevrolet, was ninth after Friday's practice runs but is looking for improvement.
Brendan Gaughan, fifth in practice, won at scenic Road America and has his own theory on what it takes to win on a road course.
"If you don't get in rhythm out there, you can really screw yourself up," he said, calling Mid-Ohio an "extremely technical road course."
Alex Tagliani, who was second at Road America, had the seventh-best practice time.
"It's a track that changes quite a bit from practice to qualifying," he said about Mid-Ohio. "The level of grip is going to go high. And the speed is going to increase tremendously."