LOS ANGELES – James Hinchcliffe roared out to a tie for first on Monday night's season premiere of "Dancing with the Stars."
The Verizon IndyCar Series driver and his dance partner Sharna Burgess received a score of 31 out of 40 for their foxtrot on the hit ABC competition show, now in its 23rd season.
Only Olympic gold-medal-winning gymnast Laurie Hernandez, with her partner Val Chmerkovskiy, equaled that top 31 score. The judges’ scores will be combined with viewer votes to determine who is eliminated next week.
WATCH: James Hinchcliffe-Sharna Burgess foxtrot
VOTE: For Hinchcliffe-Burgess through 8 p.m. ET today at ABC.com or the DWTS Facebook page
Backstage after the show, Hinchcliffe exclusively told Indycar.com that he and Burgess had performed "above our expectations, certainly. The biggest part of it is that Sharna is a great teacher. It's crazy. In all honesty, there were a lot of nerves going into the night but we've obviously been practicing very hard as everyone has.
"For whatever reason, it all just kind of clicked when it had to—it was ‘lights, camera, action’ and we couldn't be happier. Maybe we set the bar a little too high for moving forward," Hinchcliffe laughed. "But if we can improve from where we're at already, that's a good sign, for sure."
Hinchcliffe, who talked about his scary May 2015 crash in Indianapolis 500 practice for DWTS cameras, said he could tell his foxtrot with Burgess was going well while they were performing.
"As soon as it ended, I could tell it was one of the best runs we'd ever had of the whole routine and, the whole time, my heart rate was through the roof. I said to Sharna afterwards, 'I don't remember any of the actual dance,' but I knew that it went well as soon as we'd stopped and we were both pretty surprised with the judges' scores, just being Week 1 and not really knowing what to expect."
Veteran DWTS judge Len Goodman told Hinchcliffe, "You knocked me out, James," while judge Julianne Hough called him "a breath of fresh air" on the show.
Burgess, a longtime DWTS pro, noted that she thought the judges "were really impressed with James. I think especially Len was very impressed with his movement, his frame and how classical he really was in this foxtrot. Everyone was really positive and I think surprised at how graceful he was on that floor tonight. No one sees that coming from an Indy car racer."
Hinchcliffe, who wore a natty teal suit for the dance, concurred, "Let's be honest. I sit for a living, so no one thought I'd be light on my feet."
Burgess said, "I think that we're going to be a really strong team. I think James is the dark horse that no one expected to come into this competition and have the competitive spirit, the personality, the talent –and he's got it all. I'm very excited."
Hinchcliffe said he still has things to work on, including his posture: "I sit hunched over in a race car so especially for foxtrot, learning how to broaden the shoulders and stand up straight through the whole routine (is hard), but I take direction well, which is good in this sort of situation."
He added, "Sharna is like my race car now and little adjustments that she makes, I feel, and I can adjust the same way."
The night was marred by a scary incident when two men protesting against Ryan Lochte rushed the stage while the Olympic swimmer and his partner Cheryl Burke were getting feedback from DWTS judges. The two men were taken away by security as the show cut to a commercial. According to news reports, Los Angeles police spokesman Officer Mike Lopez said the men were detained by security on the set until officers arrived to take them into custody. The men, whose names have not yet been released, were arrested on suspicion of criminal trespassing.
Hinchcliffe and Burgess were backstage and didn't see the bizarre situation unfold. Hinchcliffe said his heart is with Lochte.
"It's very unfortunate. He's come here to dance. He's come here to show a different side of himself. To have something like that happen, it puts a damper on the evening but I think he's handling it pretty well and, if anything, it just might make him bounce back even stronger in Week 2."
Hinchcliffe’s girlfriend, actress Becky Dalton, was in the ballroom to watch him Monday night, as were fellow Verizon IndyCar Series drivers Alexander Rossi and Conor Daly.
"It was awesome to be here,” Rossi said. “We're all very proud of him. I definitely think he's going to go very far on the show."
Daly, Hinchcliffe's roommate, added, "James, as a driver, he's a winner. We know he was nervous but he went for the lead and he took it and shared the pole with Laurie Hernandez. He's going to win this thing."
But remember, to continue on the show, they need your votes. Online voting ends at 8 p.m. ET today.