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Happy Hour: Hornish glad to be back in Cup Series

April 20, 2012, Dave Rodman,

KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- In first Cup action in nearly a year, he finishes session seventh on speed chart

Friday's 90-minute Happy Hour practice at Kansas Speedway wasn't very many minutes old when Sam Hornish Jr. proved just how serious he was about his first Sprint Cup opportunity in nearly a year.

Hornish placed his No. 12 Penske Racing Dodge into 10th on the practice chart, the best of the 11 "go or go home" cars that must qualify Saturday on time for Sunday's STP 400.

STP 400

Practice 1
2.Carl Edwards172.900
3.Kasey Kahne172.546
4.Landon Cassill172.469
5Dale Earnhardt Jr.172.276
2.Mark Martin174.317
3.Greg Biffle173.310
4.Brad Keselowski172.850
5.Sam Hornish Jr.172.701

Some 20 minutes later, Hornish jumped to the fifth spot, with a lap in 31.27 seconds, an average speed of 172.701 mph. That lap locked Hornish into seventh on the speed chart, about 2 mph faster than the next-best go-or-go-homer, Michael McDowell, who ended up 22nd.

Hornish was sandwiched by his teammates in Happy Hour, with Brad Keselowski in sixth and AJ Allmendinger eighth. In the opening practice the trio was mixed through the order, with Allmendinger eighth, Keselowski 21st and Hornish, 39th.

That certainly relaxed some of the pressure on the full-time Nationwide Series driver, who's fourth in that series' standings after six races. But not a lot, Hornish said, for equally obvious reasons.

"We've got to get qualified in, first -- that's my goal, to get an opportunity to get out there and make the car better for 400 miles," Hornish said. "You can't do that if you're watching it on TV.

"This is more pressure, because this is where all of us eventually want to get to, and we've got a great opportunity. Like I say, our main goal is to qualify into the race, but we want to run well, once we get in there.

"But I'm not taking anything for granted. I qualified eighth or ninth for one of these races [back in 2007] and I went home. Things have changed but I know you can't be over-confident. I should look at it as there's no pressure, but I feel like there's quite a bit because I want it to be a good weekend for us."

Hornish and his Nationwide crew chief, Chad Walter, had worked on their car's race package throughout the opening 80-minute practice and consequently were lodged deep on the time sheet of the 46 cars in Kansas. But that practice was also a shakedown session for a car that Hornish said was one of the older chassis in Penske Racing's fleet that was used earlier this season by Allmendinger.

"I'd say [working with Walter] is a pretty big plus, because it gives us an opportunity to work together a little bit more and it gives him a little more experience on the Cup side," Hornish said. "Most of the guys on this [Cup] team are the 12 [team] Nationwide guys, plus we've got Jeremy [Bullins], who's the crew chief on the 22 Nationwide car and my tire guy is from their team, because it takes a couple more guys to run a Cup program.

"It's great, because like me, they all love being in the Nationwide Series, but eventually you want to be in the Cup Series so it gives all of them an opportunity to come out there and see how the Cup Series works, and how different it is."

Hornish laughed when he said he runs very little during Nationwide practice because of that series' tire restrictions, whereas he ran 14 laps in P1 and 21 laps in Happy Hour.

Hornish's best time compared favorably to those of Kyle Busch (31.083 seconds / 173.728 mph) and Jimmie Johnson (30.865 / 174.955), who led the first and second sessions, respectively.

Hornish's biggest gain in practice probably was solving a fuel pressure problem -- something that's plagued his full-time Penske teammates in several races already this season.

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In the end, Hornish said his car's fuel-delivery system would match his teammates' electronic fuel pumps setup.

"We've had some issues with our fuel systems at Penske so far [this season], and we're trying to get everything figured out," Hornish said. "So we came with a completely different package from what those guys have been running, to make sure we weren't missing something, there.

"But we had a little bit of a problem throughout our [first] practice, so we [went] back to what they're running. There's a lot going into trying to figure out the issues we've been having."

"Obviously, we've had troubles [with the fuel system]," Keselowski said after Happy Hour. "That's not good. We're working on it. The only way to know if you have the answer or not is when you get to the end of the race ... is it running or not running?

"I would say at Texas that we did not have the answers. We can do all the testing that we want. Sometimes we found something, sometimes we don't. Obviously at the end of the day we didn't have it right at Texas."

Hornish ended up making 21 laps in Happy Hour, with his quickest coming early.

"When I get in the car [Saturday] I wanted to be as fresh as you could possibly be off of doing a mock qualifying run," Hornish said.

Hornish said he was most looking forward to Penske's three-team debrief following final practice, something he and Keselowski have used to great effect in the Nationwide Series, where Keselowski has four top-five finishes in six starts.

"Brad's a lot different than a lot of the other guys I've had the opportunity to work with," Hornish said. "He's really forthcoming in telling you what he feels is right, wrong or needs to be better. He's pretty smart about picking up on exactly what we need.

"And he never offers anything negative. I've been in a lot of those meetings with him, and I've never heard him be negative, so you know you're gonna get something out of it -- it's not gonna be a bunch of frustration."

Hornish agreed his teammate could probably be considered a "360-degree race car driver," who understands his feedback can help his teammates do better, but that their insight might also help him.

"That just shows you where his mind's at," Hornish said. "He knows that, the better we run as a collective, the better off he's gonna do, most likely. If we go to the race track and work in different directions, it probably means you're gonna have forward progress."

Kurt Busch brought out the only red flag during Friday's two practices when his No. 51 Phoenix Racing Chevrolet spun off Turn 4, slid sideways through part of the trioval grass before Busch guided the car to pit road, from whence he continued back around to the garage.

Busch, whose car suffered virtually no damage, was listed 28th on the P1 sheet after running 16 laps. He ended up 23rd on the Happy Hour chart, after 54 laps.