Sam Hornish Jr. sets sights on Daytona victory, Nationwide Series points battle

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - JULY 05: Sam Hornish Jr., driver of the #12 Wurth Dodge, prepares to drive during practice for the NASCAR Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeno 250 Powered by Coca-Cola at Daytona International Speedway on July 5, 2012 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Sam Hornish Jr. is on a roll.

With an average finish of 7.5 in the last four races, Hornish has shaved 40 points off his Nationwide Series championship deficit. While bad luck to the championship leaders accelerated the dwindling championship lead, credit has to go to Hornish for taking advantage.

Between his Phoenix win in November and the Penske dominance of the Nationwide Series in recent years, Hornish was expected to contend right off the bat. But the season started off in a hit-or-miss fashion, crashing out in the season-opener and securing only three top-10s in his first seven races -- a hard blow considering the top-heavy Nationwide Series roster.

But Hornish, the 2006 Indianapolis 500 winner and former IndyCar Series champion, caught some breaks in the summer months. Elliott Sadler and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. have struggled to finish races, while Austin Dillon was docked six championship points after winning at Kentucky.

As a result, the top-four championship contenders are now just 31 points apart.

This leads us right into tonight's Subway Jalapeno 250 which could really shake up the standings. Three factors play into winning a Nationwide Series plate race -- car control, horsepower and luck. Hornish has had all three over the last month, which could signal the arrival of a fourth championship challenger -- the long-awaited "true" NASCAR arrival of Sam Hornish Jr.

Hornish was immediately promoted from IndyCar to the Sprint Cup Series in 2008 and struggled to adapt to the much-heavier stock car. Sponsorship began to dwindle and Hornish was relegated to a part-time Nationwide Series effort in 2011.

A favorite of team-owner Roger Penske, Hornish has been virtually guaranteed a full-time return to the Sprint Cup Series. But his return would mean much more as the reigning Nationwide Series champion. That effort could really begin in earnest, tonight at Daytona International Speedway.

"I really like going to Superspeedways because we have fast cars and run well," Hornish said. "We sometimes struggle with finishing well, but there is no better place to turn that around than Daytona. This weekend we just need to be smart and stay out of trouble, as well as work on finding some friends to draft with at the end of the race. We will be racing our Wurth Dodge Challenger for the second week in a row and we are working hard to bring them a great result."

Can Hornish pick up his first win of the season at Daytona?

Dillon wins Daytona Nationwide Series pole; again fails technical inspection

Austin Dillon responded to his Kentucky penalty by winning the pole for Friday's Subway Jalapeno 250. Dillon was clocked in at 177.34 mph but once again failed a technical inspection, this time after qualifying, forcing the Richard Childress Racing No. 3 to start at the rear of the field.

Just as they did last week, NASCAR will not announce any further penalties until Monday at the earliest. NASCAR made a clear statement that the inspection window was smaller for the No. 3 team than most teams in the garage.

The infraction was announced as the improper use of an open cooling hose going into the cockpit. We'll have more on this story as it develops.

The Nationwide Series Subway Jalapeno 250 at Daytona television broadcast starts at 7 p.m. EST. Green flag drops at approximately 7:49. An open race thread will be posted shortly.

The complete standings can be found here.

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