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Who is Hornish?

Sam Hornish Jr can't be called "Wonder Boy" because that nickname already belongs to NASCAR Winston Cup star Jeff Gordon. But the 22-year-old driver who clinched the Indy Racing League title with a second-place finish in Sunday's Delphi Indy 300 is certainly racing's newest star.

"It's a great feeling, a big tribute to the young age of a lot of new drivers that are coming in, not only in the Indy Racing League, but also NASCAR," Hornish said. "Every couple years, you need to break the trend and start something new, so you see the age come down."

By winning the IRL championship at 22, he became the youngest driver to win a major open wheel racing championship in North America. Four previous drivers won championships at 24 including Louis Meyer in 1928 (American Automobile Association, the sanctioning body of Indy car racing at the time), Billy Arnold in 1930 (AAA), Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 (CART) and Juan Montoya in 1999 (CART).

The IRL has had its share of "Poster Boys" starting with Tony Stewart in 1996 then Greg Ray in 1999. But Stewart left the IRL after the 1998 season to become a NASCAR driver and Ray was fired from Team Menard two weeks ago after winning the IRL championship in 1999.

If the IRL is looking for a Poster Boy, then the champion from Defiance, Ohio may fill that role.

"I'm glad I'm in the position I am, to have been given the opportunity I've been given and to represent the IRL the way that I do," Hornish said. "If they want to make me their Poster Boy, I'd love to do it because I love this series. It has given me so many opportunities that I wouldn't have had.

"The IRL is going to grow and keep growing. We are in our sixth year and other racing series have been around for over 50 years. We need to keep young talent, American drivers, in these race cars because that is what the fans want. I see the IRL having a great future and things continuing to go up for them. I like being part of it. I'll have a home here in the IRL as long as I'm a good driver and spokesman for them."

Hornish won the first two races of the year, so he was in the point's lead from the very first day. Even when Buddy Lazier won four races in a five-race stretch in June, July and August, Hornish never flinched.

"It was a little bit nerve-wracking when Buddy won those four wins but I believed we had a strong enough team to persevere and stay in the top three whether it was first second or third," Hornish said. "We had to finish races and that is what we did."

In fact, Hornish finished in the top three in nine races - a spectacular streak of consistency.

When he joined Pennzoil Panther Racing at the beginning of the season, some thought he may be too young to fill the seat at a high-profile team. But Hornish quickly proved that he was a phenomenal driver at such a young age.

The ironic thing is Hornish came from a road racing background that would have made him a contender for a decent CART ride. He won races in Formula Atlantic Racing and in Formula Fords.

But today, he is the best driver in the all-oval IRL.

"I think it goes back to before I was in Formula Atlantic," Hornish said. "I always wanted to be in the Indianapolis 500. When CART and the IRL split, I wasn't quite sure what I wanted to do, but there wasn't a training ground at the time for the IRL. I knew where I was at, I could pretty much go wherever I wanted to.

"It wasn't my goal to be in CART or my goal to be in the IRL, but the first time I drove an IRL car, I knew that this is where I wanted to be."

Now that he is the IRL champion, would he consider jumping to CART --such as what 1998 season champion Kenny Brack did after the 1999 IRL season?

"I've had a couple offers from CART, but they don't have the Indianapolis 500, they don't have the people I enjoy racing with and they don't have Panther Racing," Hornish said. "Without those three things, I'm not going anywhere."

About the only thing that Hornish didn't do well this year was in the Indianapolis 500. On cold tyres early in the race, he spun the car coming out of the fourth turn. Al Unser Jr attempted to avoid Hornish's sliding car and crashed.

Hornish fell two laps down after he stalled the car, but afterwards, was the fastest car on the race track in the event that was won by Helio Castroneves.

"I might have won the race, but I don't know how I would have handled it if I had won," Hornish said. "I guess now I'm a little bit closer to knowing what it feels like. The contract stands right now, I have two more years to try to win the Indianapolis 500 in the Pennzoil car. I know that I have the guys who have the ability to do it and if I don't make any mistakes, we can run up there next year and have a good shot at winning."

At the very least, he has the IRL championship and its $1million prize to show as his rewards for a fine season.

"I wouldn't say right yet that I am a millionaire," Hornish said. "The trophy might say I have a million dollars, but it's a heck of a feeling. It wouldn't matter it we were racing for a dollar or a million dollars out there, just to have your name on that trophy, and to know you went out there and accomplished that feat is good enough for the rest of us."

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