By KEVIN KELLY
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2001
When Sam Hornish reflects upon what he's already accomplished in the Indy Racing League this season, the 21-year-old driver can hardly believe it himself.
"A lot of things came together really quick," said Hornish, who replaced Scott Goodyear as driver for Pennzoil Panther Racing before this season. "We came into the year and I said if we win a race or two we'll be really happy because that's what we're coming out here to do, win a couple races. As luck had it, we won the first two of the year and we're really excited about that."
The Defiance, Ohio, native won at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami and has led 70 percent of all laps completed (282 of 400). He holds a 29-point lead on Eliseo Salazar in the standings heading into the Atlanta 500 Classic Saturday at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
A third consecutive win would make Hornish the first IRL driver to win three races in a row since Kenny Brack in 1998.
"You've got to pinch yourself every morning when you wake up just to make sure it isn't a dream," team manager and co-owner John Barnes said.
Hornish, who also has raced in karts, U.S. F2000 and the Toyota Atlantic Series, drove in eight IRL races for PDM Racing last season before joining Panther Racing.
"We knew if we could put him in our car, we could make a winner out of him," crew chief Kevin Blanch. "So that part all worked out."
GREENHOUSE EFFECT: As most Winston Cup teams prepared to head west for the NAPA Auto Parts 500 Sunday at California Speedway, driver Sterling Marlin participated in a NASCAR test Monday at Talladega Superspeedway.
The test was conducted without the aerodynamic rules NASCAR used the past three restrictor-plate races at Talladega and Daytona.
The rules were designed to improve racing, even with the horsepower-limiting plates required at the tracks since 1988, but have instead create pack racing that some drivers consider dangerous.
Marlin, one of the most vocal drivers regarding the need to change the rules and separate the field, completed about 50 laps with speeds ranging from 182 to 187 mph.
NASCAR officials tried various width and height changes to the rear spoiler and front fenders, and altered the greenhouse area, which includes the roof and all the windows.
"The results we received were not promising," Winston Cup director Gary Nelson said. "While the test did not provide us with any immediate answers, we will still study what we learned and possibly regroup to organize another test to continue to build on the theory of a bigger, less aerodynamic greenhouse."
BACK TO TEXAS: CART drivers expect lap speeds in the inaugural Firestone Firehawk 600 Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway will average between 215-220 mph -- or about 15 mph slower than what they reach on a superspeedway track like Michigan International Speedway.
"The track is shorter than the superspeedways we race on but the banking of the track will be totally new to us since it is a configuration we never run on," Christian Fittipaldi said. "So we don't know what to expect."
Cristiano da Matta, who leads Gil de Ferran by seven points, has an idea.
"I think the race will be won on the last lap," he said. "It's going to be a shootout in Texas and I hope I am part of it. The track is absolutely unbelievable."
ODDS AND ENDS: Defending Busch Grand National champion Jeff Green will attempt to qualify a third entry, the No. 30 Chevrolet, for Richard Childress Racing in the NAPA Auto Parts 500. ... Road-racing specialist Boris Said will take over for Winston Cup regular Robert Pressley in the No. 77 Ford for road-course events at Sears Point and Watkins Glen this season.
-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.