LOS ANGELES – "Dancing with the Stars" semifinal night was a roaring success for James Hinchcliffe.
Not only did the Verizon IndyCar Series driver get his original partner, Sharna Burgess, back from a knee injury, but he learned they had survived elimination and were headed to the finals of the hit reality show.
On Monday night, Hinchcliffe and Burgess scored 29 out of 30 points for their Argentine tango and a perfect 30 for a jive trio dance that included pro Jenna Johnson, who had substituted for the recovering Burgess the previous two weeks. With that cumulative 59 out of a possible 60 total points, Hinchcliffe was in second place for the night. Gymnast Laurie Hernandez was in first place after receiving a perfect 60 for her two dances with partner Val Chmerkovskiy.
"Little Women LA" star Terra Jole also scored a 60 but was sent home based on last week's performances. It means Hinchcliffe, Hernandez, country singer Jana Kramer and former football player Calvin Johnson Jr. will compete next week for the mirror ball trophy. Finals week consists of live ABC broadcasts on Nov. 21 and 22.
Hinchcliffe couldn’t believe that he had reached the finals.
"Absolutely not. I came into this just wanting to not be the first guy to go home,” the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports drivers said. “To have accomplished that and then quite a bit more — I think what's making this so fun for me is I came in with no expectations. I didn't put a lot of pressure on myself. Every week has been a reward in itself and every time we get to go do it again, it's just the cherry on top, icing on the cake and so, the finals now, it's incredible. We get to do it for the last week and have fun with it."
With Burgess back by his side and INDYCAR great and “Dancing with the Stars” Season 5 champion Helio Castroneves cheering him on in the ballroom, Hinchcliffe couldn't have been happier Monday.
Burgess told reporters backstage, "I feel really strong. I'm glad I took the two weeks off as much as it was really terrible for me to sit on the sidelines, but it was obviously worth it because I think our reunion dance was pretty epic.
"I knew all week that it was going to happen but I didn't really want to announce it too soon in case something happened, so I waited that little bit.”
Judge Julianne Hough described the couple's Argentine tango as "absolutely sensational," "controlled" and "sexy," while Bruno Tonioli raved, "That was an Argentinian grand prix!" Carrie Ann Inaba was a bit tougher, stating, "You nailed the risky parts," but added that Hinchcliffe suffered a "few little wobbles."
Hinchcliffe led a blindfolded Burgess around the floor and, at the end of the dance, did a handstand over top of her on a chair.
"I felt good," he told Indycar.com. "The handstand was actually something Sharna threw in halfway through the week because I was messing around with the chair in rehearsal one day and did that. And she kind of turned around and had this gasping look on her face and just pointed and said, 'That! I want that!' She has said to me from Day 1 that I can't do anything in rehearsal that I'm not prepared to have in a dance … it's my own fault."
The 29-year-old Canadian wasn't bothered a bit that Inaba mentioned the minor mistakes and scored him a nine while he received 10s from Hough and Tonioli.
"I don't know exactly which moment that was," Hinchcliffe laughed. "It was still obviously a phenomenal score to get two 10s and a nine on our first dance back. I was just happy to be on the dance floor with Sharna, that was the big thing for me. We didn't make any big mistakes. We stuck the handstand, which was pretty important, and the tying of the blindfold."
In their second dance, the trio portion of the night, Hinchcliffe steered Burgess and Johnson around the floor like a pro. The exciting jive set to the song "Gimme Some Lovin’" – a song Hinchcliffe’s dad used to play on their way to racing events when the driver was a youngster – had Tonioli sighing that Hinchcliffe was "still in top gear." Inaba said, "The best part was the unison."
As a prop for the dance, Hinchcliffe’s No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda was on the dance floor. A show car now, it included the tub Hinchcliffe was in when he survived a serious crash last year at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Hinchcliffe jumped over it as part of his jive.
"It was so cool, the fact we were able to make that happen was just awesome for me personally and the fact that it was THE car that I had my accident in just made it so much more special and the fact she (Burgess) was back on the floor tonight. It's all kind of a story of recovery and growth," noted Hinchcliffe, who was also excited to have fellow driver Castroneves in the audience.
"He's been such a big supporter from Day 1,” Hinchcliffe said. “He's obviously been here, done it, he knows what it takes, he knows what we're going through and he's been really helping spread the word, especially in the INDYCAR community and hopefully getting a lot of votes in," Hinchcliffe said.
Castroneves told Indycar.com, "My God, he's really nailing it. It's unbelievable. It's funny, I told everybody around me, he's going to go to the final because I noticed what he's doing. I could see the frame, he's really focused and Sharna has done phenomenal job. It's all about teamwork."
"It's great he brought the Indy car (into the trios dance) so people can see what we do.
"I was there when the crash happened," Castroneves remembered. "I didn't know it was that serious. Normally when a crash goes sideways, we don't expect that something's going to go through the chassis. When we heard that, we were worried but I'm glad he not only came back, but now he's dancing and he's in the final. I'm actually giving the baton to James now. He's the one to carry on; hopefully we bring the mirror ball trophy to Indianapolis."
The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said he gave Hinchcliffe a final piece of advice. "I told him, now it's time to take a chance. Go ahead and have fun. Don't try to become a professional, otherwise it's going to be a problem," Castroneves said.
Meanwhile, Burgess is planning Hinchcliffe's freestyle dance for next week's finale.
"The key to going into finale week is to not change a thing, to work the same, to enjoy it the same, to not put any stress on it, to not try to break the mold of what already got you to the finale. I've been thinking about what we could do for a finale for weeks now, so I just want to enjoy the last week. We're not going to stress about it. We're going to do 'us' and laugh and have a good time and have an epic last moment together."
Online voting to help Hinchcliffe and Burgess survive the first finals elimination remains open until 8 p.m. ET today at both ABC.com and the “Dancing with the Stars” Facebook page. Up to five votes can be cast at each location.
Watch Hinchcliffe's two dances from Monday night below: