Kentucky Speedway

Briscoe fits just fine in ex-champ Hornish's shoes

Ryan Briscoe doesn't mind if people are shocked by his level of success this year because, really, he's still wrapping his head around it himself.

He was, by his own admission, an unproven commodity in the IndyCar Series before this season, and then he was handed the almost impossible task of trying to fill the shoes of one of the sport's greatest champions.

He knew no one would have blamed him if this year was more struggle than success. But he also knew he would never forgive himself if he failed to take advantage of an astonishing opportunity.

When Briscoe was pegged to take over the No. 6 Team Penske Dallara/Honda after three-time series champion Sam Hornish Jr. jumped to NASCAR, most figured it would be up to longtime Penske star Helio Castroneves to carry the team's burden for 2008.

Castroneves' trademark consistency has him second in the overall points standings, but the 26-year-old Briscoe has surprised everyone by notching all of Team Penske's victories this season. And he's fifth in the standings heading into Saturday's Meijer Indy 300 at Kentucky Speedway.

The Australian native — whose only other full year in the series came with Target Chip Ganassi in 2005 — scored his first career victory at Milwaukee in June and then won at Mid-Ohio on July 20.

“Getting a couple wins under my belt has just been spectacular,” Briscoe said. “I came into this role not having a race win under my belt, not really having anything to my credit in the IndyCar league, and you're getting into a car and a team where you know you have to perform.

“I saw this as my big opportunity to show what we were capable of and what I could do. But until you get your first win it's tough because you're in a car that has won so many races and championships.”

If Briscoe seems well-equipped to handle the enormous pressure, it's because it pales in comparison to the stress of wondering where your next job is coming from.

After losing his ride with Target Chip Ganassi following the 2005 season, when he was 19th in the standings, Briscoe battled to keep himself on the open-wheel landscape. He drove four IndyCar races for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing in 2006 and ran two Champ Car races.

He failed to secure an IndyCar ride last season, but he established a key connection when he signed to drive for Penske in the American Le Mans Series, where he earned Rookie of the Year honors. And he impressed his current boss further when he ran fifth in the 2007 Indy 500 in a one-off deal for Luczo Dragon Racing.

Thus, when Hornish's departure from IndyCar became official last year, Briscoe was Penske's first pick to be promoted.

“For me, 2006 was about just racing whenever I could, and I even made contacts in Australia for the V8 Supercar racing. That was my fall-back option,” Briscoe said. “But being as early in my career as I am, I didn't want to have to go to my fall-back option so soon.

“I was just trying to keep my foot in the door and, when the opportunity with Penske came along in the sports car program, I jumped right on it.”

The adjustment period many expected Briscoe to suffer through was evident early, as he cracked the top 10 just twice in his first five races.

On the Milwaukee oval on June 1, Briscoe showed Penske could again be a two-team powerhouse when he led 36 laps and held off points leader Scott Dixon to earn his first win, giving team owner Roger Penske his historic 300th victory in motorsports.

“I couldn't have asked for a win to come on a better day at a better time,” Briscoe said. “It was No. 300 for Penske, and it was also the anniversary of the first-ever win for (former Penske star) Rick Mears, so it was absolutely phenomenal. I wasn't expecting it, and I certainly wasn't expecting to get my first win on an oval.”

While exceeding expectations, Briscoe and his team have been able to work themselves into a solid groove the second half of the season. In the seven races since Milwaukee, Briscoe has four top-10s. He's won the pole at Watkins Glen and Edmonton and was the dominant car when he won No. 2 at Mid-Ohio.

“I don't think we've really improved that much but, in Indy, everyone is so close that all it takes is a little bit,” Briscoe said.

At the start of the year, many said Briscoe's season would be a success if he simply kept his high-profile ride competitive.

With five races left, Briscoe is glad to report that even he is having to redefine the goals he set for this season.

“Really, my goal was to ... just try and be in the top five consistently,” he said. “It's been a bit of a roller-coaster year. But the highs have definitely outweighed the lows.”