Schmidt Peterson duo looks to build on superspeedway prowess

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They returned to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with confidence after proving in 2016 that they could contend at superspeedways with the best in the Verizon IndyCar Series.

Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ James Hinchcliffe celebrated the first pole of his career at this track in last May’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. He also led 188 laps in a runner-up Firestone 600 finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Teammate Mikhail Aleshin notched his first career pole in the ABC Supply 500 at Pocono Raceway in August. He led a race-high 87 laps before finishing a personal-best second in the race.

The positives they gleaned from those experiences had both drivers upbeat at Friday’s IMS test.

“Honda has done an incredible job with their superspeedway package,” Hinchcliffe said. “Those were the three races we were genuinely in contention for all year last year. At least Honda still won Texas (with Graham Rahal) and the 500 (Alexander Rossi) and Mikhail was second at Pocono. It was a strength as a manufacturer last year.

“This team, we’ve put a lot of time and effort into our speedway cars. That showed last year, especially here. Mikhail was on pole at Pocono and I led a million laps at Texas. Going back to those places, you definitely have a bit of confidence.”

That SPM locked up Aleshin to return with Hinchcliffe gives the team continuity moving forward. Aleshin, the series’ first Russian driver, has a no-nonsense demeanor in assessing how the past doesn’t guarantee the future, but he also sounds more poised about the prospect of becoming a consistent contender this season.

“I think the team is in pretty good shape,” said Aleshin, 29. “We took a step forward compared to last year at the beginning of the year. Obviously coming to the Indy 500, I hope we’re going to be even more strong. I hope we’ll be able to keep the momentum. At the moment, everything feels good.

“To be fair, inside of my mind, my psychology, I don’t really care what happened last year. If it’s good or it’s bad, when you come to the track this year, it’s a completely different story. What I’m positive about is the team, that’s for sure. We have a lot of good people working on our cars. I’m positive about our overall shape this season.”

Whereas Hinchcliffe has been a series regular since 2011, Aleshin entered in 2014 but was forced to take most of the next season off due to sponsorship issues. He returned last year to make more of a mark, thus earning a new contract. In addition to Pocono, he finished fifth at St. Petersburg and Iowa and sixth at Toronto.

Aleshin also led a race-high 33 laps in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio, but a bad pit stop late proved costly as he had contact with Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and was assessed a drive-through penalty for contact with a crew member. Aleshin has finished 21st and 27th in his two Indy 500 appearances.

“Part of it is just his experience,” Hinchcliffe said of Aleshin. “His Indy car career was interrupted with that year off. Now he’s coming back for his first consecutive season, if that makes sense, not having that kind of stop gap in the middle. He was driving really well by the second half of last year, so I think his confidence was high.

“They had a really good shot at winning at Mid-Ohio, an unfortunate pit stop cost him that. He ran super well at Texas. I think he’s relishing in the continuity of being with the same team, the same engineers, same teammate, a lot of the same mechanics. It’s a good position to be in.”

Hinchcliffe, 30, finished 13th in the points but would have been five positions better were it not for a 25-point post-race penalty for excessive domed skid wear at Texas.

“That’s how we went into the offseason, looking at the fact we probably had a sixth- or seventh-place championship effort,” he said. “Between running out of fuel while running second with two corners to go at Watkins Glen – that was a huge points hit – and then obviously the Texas points hit, and that’s not including the disaster of the weekend that was Detroit and really, really average weekends like at Road America, those happen. That’s racing, right?

“Those burned a little. Those combined points (lost) would have put us in the top five. As a team, as a unit, we’re really proud of the effort that we put forth last year and it gives us a lot of confidence going into this year, that if we can do that and be consistently competitive and clean up a few of those races where we were a little bit rusty, hopefully we can be in a good position at the end of this season.”

As for the Canadian’s previous run in the Indy 500, the pole sitter stayed near the front for much of the afternoon with 27 laps led, but finished seventh when the end of the race was decided by fuel mileage strategy.

“We’re thinking about this race, there’s no doubt about it,” Hinchcliffe said of the Indy 500. “We know exactly why we didn’t win the race and that’s all we’re thinking about for this year.”

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