Hinchcliffe achieves 'Dancing' perfection with fill-in partner

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LOS ANGELES -- Nothing has stopped James Hinchcliffe from racing to the top on "Dancing with the Stars."

The determined Verizon IndyCar Series driver scored a perfect 30 from the judges for his performance with substitute professional dancer Jenna Johnson on Monday's Halloween-themed night. That individual dance tied Hinchcliffe for first place with former football player Calvin Johnson Jr. and gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

The score also resulted in Hinchcliffe winning immunity for the "dance-off" portion of the night, which meant he didn't have to dance a second time and guaranteed he would not be eliminated from the hit ABC dance competition show Monday. Hinchcliffe earned immunity over Calvin Johnson and Hernandez because his cumulative judges’ scores through the eight weeks of the show’s season have been highest. The immunity also gave Hinchcliffe a bonus of five points, putting him atop Monday's leaderboard with a total of 35.

Despite the incredible performance and lofty score, Hinchcliffe could still face elimination on the Nov. 7 broadcast if he doesn’t secure enough of the fan vote that is combined with the judges’ scores to determine who moves on and who goes home among the remaining six celebrity-pro couples. Online voting for this week remains open through 8 p.m. ET today at abc.com and the “Dancing with the Stars” Facebook page.

Watch Hinchcliffe's dance below.

Hinchcliffe suffered a major setback Oct. 24 when his season-long pro partner, Sharna Burgess, injured her right knee during rehearsal.  Although they were able to perform on that night’s live show (tying for high score in the individual dance and leading the winning team in the group dance), Burgess was warned by her orthopedist that she risked a more severe injury by continuing in the competition. So Jenna Johnson, who was paired with Jake T. Austin for this season until the actor was the first celebrity eliminated, stepped in to rehearse and perform with Hinchcliffe.   

"Obviously it was gutting losing (Burgess),” Hinchcliffe told IndyCar.com after Monday’s show with the 31-year-old Australian at his side. “The first thought was just making sure she was OK. It's not about me or the show at this point. It's about a friend and making sure she's healed and can she continue to do her job.”

Burgess has had the knee surgically repaired once already. Doctors said she would need three to six weeks of rest. Three weeks of competition remain.

"It is what it is,” Hinchcliffe added. “You can worry about things, but it's not going to help the situation.  I learned that time and time again in my career. This was the hand we were dealt and we had to make the best of it."

Burgess traveled to Ohio last week to meet with her doctor in person, with Jenna Johnson filling in for rehearsals. She may have been thousands of miles away, but Burgess remained invested in the performance.

"It was tough when that call came in that she would have to go to Ohio and it was looking like she was going to have to miss the show on Monday,” Hinchcliffe said. “We were fortunate that we had someone as awesome as Jenna to step in and we had her in the first couple of rehearsals and we were Facetiming (Sharna) into the ones when she was out of town.

"She got back to town and whipped my ass in one of the most intense rehearsals of Sunday night of all time,” the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports and four-time Indy car race winner said. “It's what we needed and it just shows how dedicated she is to this.

“She may not have been the one on stage with me but this was a Sharna Burgess production, through and through. It was her choreography and so, for Jenna and I to go out there and dance the way we did and get the scores that we did, it was just us really trying to do her proud and we're happy about that."

James Hinchcliffe, Jenna Johnson, and Sharna BurgessHinchcliffe, who shaved his beard to fit in character for Monday's performance, said in the pre-dance video package that aired on the broadcast that he feared he may have danced with Burgess for the final time. But she sounded more upbeat after the show.

"I am healing really, really quickly,” said Burgess, whose best “Dancing with the Stars” finish to date was a year ago in Season 21 when she was runner-up with Nick Carter. “I will find out on Friday. I am going for another MRI, get another exam and make sure that I'm clear (to resume competing).

“Obviously I don't want to risk it too soon, so for this week I'll still be teaching, I'll still be creating, I'll be in the room with James. But Jenna will be dancing for me as my body and once I find out on Friday that I'm cleared to dance Monday, I'll jump in from that point. But if, for whatever reason, I get told I need a few extra days, Jenna will have to perform with him on Monday." 

Hinchcliffe admitted to IndyCar.com it was difficult adapting to a new partner.

"I joke that I danced my entire dancing career with just one person – my two-and-a-half-month-long dancing career – but it is. I wasn't really expecting how different it is to step in with somebody else and it's not just dancing. It became at a certain point also teaching and coaching and all the rest of it.

“I don't know what I need and don't need. That's something that Sharna's learned through working with me for the last two months and so Jenna's having to do this crash course in James Hinchcliffe as a dancer. It's a big ask for both of us but we had a huge rock to lean on here at the start of the week (Burgess) and the end of the week and we were able to put it all together when it counted."

They did, indeed, leaving all three judges raving. Julianne Hough said she needed time to compose herself and related Hinchcliffe’s situation to when she was a pro dancer on the show and had to step aside mid-season to have surgery.

“You’ve built eight weeks of chemistry and everything, but it just goes to show that you are the real deal because you can dance with any partner and knock it out of the park,” Hough said of Hinchcliffe and Johnson’s Viennese waltz dressed as characters from the film “Suicide Squad” – Hinchcliffe as Jared Leto’s Joker and Johnson as Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn.

“In spite of a new set of wheels, you still delivered the ride of a lifetime,” added judge Bruno Tonioli.

Judge Carrie Ann Inaba said Hinchcliffe reminded her of longtime DWTS pro Mark Ballas, a two-time champion. “It was beyond incredible,” she said. “You handled the beast of all dances. This one is in a whole different style of dancing and very aggressive. I wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out and you handled it like a pro.”

Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte was eliminated at the conclusion of Monday’s broadcast based on the judges’ scores and fan vote from last week. In addition to Hinchcliffe, Calvin Johnson and Hernandez, other celebrities remaining in the competition for Week 9 are actress Marilu Henner, reality star Terra Jole and actress/singer Jana Kramer.

Carrie Ann Inaba, Julianne Hough, and Bruno Tonioli

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