Erwin sees possible title down the road

ASSOCIATED PRESS Dale Earnhardt Jr. with the pole award after qualifying for tomorrow's Sprint Cup series race at Dover.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Dale Earnhardt Jr. with the pole award after qualifying for tomorrow's Sprint Cup series race at Dover.
Posted: September 29, 2013

DOVER, Del. - Greg Erwin joined Penske Racing's NASCAR Nationwide series program this year as a crew chief because he wanted an opportunity to win a championship.

With six races remaining, Erwin, from Hatboro, has Sam Hornish Jr. atop the Nationwide series points standings. Entering today's 5-hour Energy 200 race at Dover International Speedway, Hornish leads Austin Dillon by 15 points.

Despite Hornish's consistency in the No. 12 Ford - one win, 13 top-five finishes - Erwin isn't tempted to fire up a title cigar.

"No one is going to give us a championship; we have to be flawless [in all races]," Erwin said before arriving in the First State's capital.

Erwin and Hornish are an experienced combination. Erwin, 43, previously was Greg Biffle's crew chief in the Sprint Cup series. They were in three Chases together, with Biffle finishing third, seventh and sixth. Erwin later served as crew chief for A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola.

Hornish, 34, is a former IndyCar series and Indianapolis 500 winner.

"This year," Erwin said, "he and I have nothing less than championship expectations."

As is the case with Danica Patrick, Juan Pablo Montoya and Dario Franchitti, Hornish's IndyCar success has not been duplicated in NASCAR. He struggled in earlier Sprint Cup races.

"Open wheel [experience] doesn't translate to these cars," Erwin said. "He's admitted sometimes he isn't sure what's needed to improve his car. He's still learning."

Indy cars are lighter and quicker than stock cars. Also, in stock-car racing there's much more contact.

"What separates good crew chiefs from great ones is what's going to happen in the race and giving yourself a chance to win," Hornish told espn.com. "All that stuff, all that feel, what the track is going to do, that's what Greg was brought in for. It wasn't because we had horrible cars and couldn't figure out how to run fast. I was running in the top five and had opportunity to win races."

Erwin thinks Hornish can succeed in the Cup series, provided he is in quality equipment. Hornish does not have a Cup ride for next year.

"For his sake," Erwin said, "I hope he winds up in something real competitive. In no way is he done developing as a stock-car driver. Having 'champion' next to his name [would be a resume booster]."

A championship also would look good on Erwin's resume for Cup teams seeking an experienced crew chief. Whatever happens, the Clemson graduate says he'll be happy to stay with Penske Racing.

"They have top-notch equipment and I like the way they run their shop," Erwin said.

Earnhardt sets record

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won his first Dover pole yesterday for tomorrow's AAA 400 Sprint Cup race with a track-record 161.849 mph. Jeremy Mayfield held the track qualifying mark of 161.522 mph, set in June 2004.

Chase points leader Matt Kenseth was the second-fastest qualifier (161.805). Ryan Newman was third (161.740).

"We've had really good speed and balance," Earnhardt said. "We're more competitive than in the past here."

Earnhardt's time was almost 4 seconds faster than Denny Hamlin's 157.978 mph pole clocking in June. Explaining why Earnhardt's time was significantly faster than Hamlin's, Newman said: "A lot has to do with the temperature. Also [it's] us getting a better package with the car for a track that is this sensitive. I think everybody has gotten things a little more fine-tuned and that makes a big difference."

Smith paces Nationwide

Regan Smith, third in Nationwide points (45 behind Sam Hornish Jr.), was the fastest in yesterday's final practice (154.090 mph) in a Chevrolet. Hornish was seventh-fastest (152.970). Nationwide qualifying starts today at 12:05 p.m. The race is scheduled for a 3:30 p.m. start (ESPN).

New sponsorship

IZOD will end its sponsorship of the IndyCar Series after this season. IZOD joined the IndyCar Series in 2008 as its official apparel provider and became the series entitlement holder in 2010.

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