Hinchcliffe wants to dance way into 2017 title contention

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James Hinchcliffe insists he still can’t dance, despite evidence to the contrary.

As much as he enjoyed finishing second on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” an offseason endeavor the Canadian considered important to boost the Verizon Indy Car Series profile, “Hinch” aspires to put a stronger foot forward at racetracks this season.

“We're excited to hit the ground running in 2017, not having any major changes to the engines, the body kits, anything like that,” the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver said. “Whenever we have something like that, the smaller teams are on the back foot a bit. You don't have the resources of the big three (Penske, Ganassi and Andretti), and so when we're dealing with a big change, it's always harder for us.

“Now that we don't have that, we can really focus on the little details and improving on the areas that we've identified we need to improve on, and hopefully that bodes well for us for ’17."

That focus was evident for Hinchcliffe and teammate Mikhail Aleshin during the Feb. 10-11 open test at Phoenix Raceway. The two drivers were in the bottom half of the speed chart in three of the four practice sessions while the team concentrated on its testing checklist. Hinchcliffe wound up 10th fastest for the weekend in the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Honda in the final official all-team test before next month’s season opener at St. Petersburg.

His 2016 highlights included a first career pole on racing’s largest stage in May’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by Penn Grade Motor Oil. He also dominated with 188 laps led in the Firestone 600 before losing by 0.008 of a second to Graham Rahal in the closest finish in Texas Motor Speedway history.

A pair of thirds at the INDYCAR Grand Prix of Indianapolis and Honda Indy Toronto as well as a fifth in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio also showed he had pace to contend.

But Hinchcliffe also had too many lowlights. That lack of consistency, as well as a costly post-race inspection penalty at Texas, dropped him to 13th in the points.

“Our ultimate championship position is nowhere near the place that we should have been,” he said.

Hinchcliffe was docked 25 championship points and the team fined $20,000 for excessive domed skid wear at Texas. If that infraction hadn’t occurred, he would have finished eighth in the points, which would have tied his previous best set twice with Andretti Autosport in 2012 and 2013.

“There were a few results that came as a result of bad processes and procedure on our side as a team, a few things that I certainly could have done better behind the wheel,” he said. “We swallowed that big points penalty in Texas, things like that. 

“Because we haven't had any major shifts in our program, we've been able to really kind of pinpoint those things and work on implementing new processes and procedures within the team to maximize efficiency. We don't have the human resources that some of the bigger teams do, so we've got to be as efficient with our time and everything as we can on a race weekend – streamlining the decision-making process on the engineering side and making sure that we focus as much on the race car as we do on the qualifying car.”

Hinchcliffe’s start from the Indy 500 pole resulted in a seventh-place finish. He qualified in the top six for four other races, although a fourth-place start in the first race of the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix resulted in a disappointing 18th due to a mechanical malfunction and wall impact. A day later, he didn’t complete a lap due to another accident after getting caught up in traffic.

Just like that, the momentum from a meaningful May was lost.

“The entire Detroit weekend was unfortunate,” Hinchcliffe said. “We had a top-five car and we had a parts failure in the back of the car and then taking it out on Lap 1 of Race 2, that was a disaster of a weekend. Watkins Glen, primed for a second-place finish, ran out of (fuel) with two to go kind of unnecessarily due to a miscalculation in something.”

When asked how realistic it would be to emerge as a championship contender in 2017, the four-time race winner pointed to Honda needing to narrow the performance gap on Chevrolet.

“Obviously stats don't lie,” he said. “As a manufacturer, we're on a little bit of the back foot with nothing changing for 2017. I think the other guys (Chevrolet) won, was it 14 out of 16 races last year? Those aren't awesome numbers (for Honda), so we need to change that trend. We have to do a better job with what we've got in order to do that.

“But it is such a competitive series, and consistency is so valuable in this series that even if you're not winning those races, if you're consistently in the top five, getting on the podium, maybe snag a win or two, there's absolutely no reason why you can't be at least in the hunt, in the conversation of the championship when we get to the last two or three races.”

Maybe then, more people will recognize Hinchcliffe as an INDYCAR car driver as opposed to the good-looking guy who adapted well in the uncomfortable domain of the dance floor.

“Yeah, in the paddock luckily they knew me as a driver first,” Hinchcliffe said. “It's more walking through airports. That's been the biggest adjustment. But yeah, I did not appreciate quite the size and quite the following of the ‘Dancing with the Stars’ fan base before I was on the show, and they're a very enthusiastic, very vocal, very loyal group of fans. It's been awesome to see that. 

“A lot of people were watching and people were a fan of what (professional dance partner) Sharna (Burgess) and I were doing on the floor, and it's definitely going to be a little bit different walking through the paddock.”

The 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season tips off with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 12 (noon ET, ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network). Hinchcliffe earned his first series win at St. Pete in 2013.

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