LOS ANGELES – James Hinchcliffe had a season to remember on "Dancing with the Stars," despite finishing a close second to Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez on Tuesday night's live grand finale.
In the climactic final moments of Season 23 on the ABC broadcast, the Verizon IndyCar Series star and his partner Sharna Burgess stood onstage at The Grove outdoor mall in West Hollywood, adjacent to the studio where the dancers performed all 11 weeks, waiting anxiously for the results before a huge crowd of fans.
After former football player Calvin Johnson Jr. was eliminated in third place, Hinchcliffe and Hernandez knew they were the final two competing for the Mirror Ball Trophy awarded to the champion. But sadly for Hinchcliffe and INDYCAR Nation, host Tom Bergeron announced Hernandez and partner Val Chmerkovskiy as the winners.
"It was an incredible season,” Hinchcliffe told IndyCar.com after the show. “Obviously, nobody expected us to make it this far in the competition, ourselves included, and so it speaks volumes for the coach and the teacher and the creative mastermind that Sharna is and I can't thank her enough for all the effort this year."
The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was philosophical, adding, "If you had told me (on) Week 1 (that) we would have ended up second, I wouldn't have believed you and I would have been thrilled with that. To come behind an Olympic gymnast, gold medalist like Laurie, congrats to them."
All three couples performed a “24-Hour Fusion Challenge” on Tuesday’s broadcast, combining two contrasting styles into a dance with only 24 hours to create the performance. All three couples earned perfect 40 scores from the four judges, including Hinchcliffe and Burgess for their fused foxtrot and Viennese waltz (watch it below).
Each of the judges had glowing comments for Hinchcliffe, the 29-year-old Canadian sensation.
From Len Goodman: “Congratulations on making the final and, when I see you dance like that, it’s completely understandable why you’re here. You are a terrific dancer. What I love firstly is the chemistry between you two is just great. I can say no more than this: I wish I could dance like you.”
From Julianne Hough: “That dance completely captured your relationship and your friendship. I think what you’ve shown us this whole season is how special your bond is. Thank you for everything, I’ve so enjoyed watching you this season.”
From Bruno Tonioli: “What a class act this is. … You’re so in tune with Sharna, it is absolutely beautiful to watch what you two create here night after night. Amazing.”
From Carrie Ann Inaba: “I’ve never seen three more worthy finalists ever. … Perfect choice for the fusion dance because, Viennese waltz and foxtrot, those were the dances that you do so well. When you dance, you transform all of us into this world of dreams where all men can lead with beautiful, incredible technique and take us all off into this fairytale. It was wonderful as usual.”
The pre-dance video package Tuesday also showed the dance partners visiting their rehearsal studio one last time. In it, Hinchcliffe said making it this far "was beyond my wildest expectation." As a poignant gift, he presented Burgess the firesuit he wore in his first race back after the serious crash that nearly took his life 18 months ago. "You finished my story," Hinchcliffe told her.
To which an emotional Burgess replied, "Thank you for giving me the season of my life."
The judges’ scores from the Tuesday dance were added to those from Monday’s two dances, leaving Hinchcliffe (127 total points) a single point behind Hernandez and two points ahead of Johnson. When combined with fan voting, Hernandez prevailed.
Co-host Andrews revealed to reporters after the show, "I don't know what the vote tallies were, but I know the producers were saying to us this morning … that it was very, very close."
"At the end of the day, coming so close and missing out is still tough,” Hinchcliffe admitted,” and I'm gutted for Sharna because she worked so hard and she deserves it, but we put in a great effort and I can't thank everybody in the INDYCAR community enough for all the support."
All four finalists – including singer Jana Kramer, who was eliminated Monday – were whisked off after the show Tuesday night and flew to New York City for appearances this morning on ABC shows “Good Morning America” and “The View.”
Hinchcliffe is the second INDYCAR driver to compete on "Dancing with the Stars," following Helio Castroneves, who won Season 5 in 2007 with Julianne Hough and also appeared on "DWTS: All-Stars" with partner Chelsie Hightower.
"I know Helio's not going to let me hear the end of this,” Hinchcliffe joked, “but it was still a good run."