BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – James Hinchcliffe has taken his pace to another level in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
One of two drivers to make the Firestone Fast Six in qualifying at each of the first three events this season, Hinchcliffe is coming off a huge win two weeks ago at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach and will start sixth in today’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama presented by America’s First (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
If an ill-timed caution had not come out while leading the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, the affable 30-year-old Canadian driver of the No. 5 Arrow Honda could very well have two victories in as many races.
Hinchcliffe is in his seventh Verizon IndyCar Series season and will make his 92nd race start today. He’s in his third year with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, although his first season with the team was cut short by the serious injuries he sustained in an Indianapolis 500 practice crash.
He returned for a full season in 2016 and posted several strong performances, including a dominant run at Texas Motor Speedway in which he led 188 laps before being nipped on the final lap by 0.008 of a second. In the next round at Watkins Glen International, he was running second when he ran out of fuel on the final lap.
Hinchcliffe and his team built on those promising finishes last season to get off to a strong start in 2017.
“I think a lot of it comes down to continuity,” said Hinchcliffe. “Obviously, 2015 was cut short, so 2106 was kind of the first full year working with this team and growing together. By the end of the season, we were really hitting our stride. Texas was a great race, Watkins (Glen International) we were really competitive.
“We had a couple of really good runs there at the end of the season and we had very few changes in the offseason. We had almost all the same mechanics, all the same engineers and obviously the same teammate (Mikhail Aleshin) come back, so I think this is just part of seeing that building and us all meshing as a group.”
The five-time race winner gladly rates his team with the best of the series.
“It’s super competitive in the Verizon IndyCar Series at the moment,” said Hinchcliffe. “Track position and good starting position is obviously a very important part of it. We focused a lot of our efforts and energy in the offseason to it. We were decent. We had a decent strike rate last season.
“Certainly, getting the No. 5 car consistently in the Fast Six is great and it’s put us in position to lead laps so far this season and obviously take a victory last week in Long Beach. Proud of the Arrow Electronics guys and everybody at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports to consistently be giving us a car good enough to be competing with the best of the best.
Traditionally solid at Barber Motorsports Park with four top-10 finishes in six starts, Hinchliffe has extra incentive for today’s 90-lap race on the 2.3-mile Barber Motorsports Park road course. The win at Long Beach tied him with his racing hero, the late Greg Moore, who would have turned 42 Saturday. Hinchcliffe admitted winning this weekend would be meaningful.
“It would be pretty cool man, for sure,” said Hinchcliffe, who wears red racing gloves as Moore did. “If we could pull off something like that and get the red gloves back in victory lane for him, that’d be pretty special.”
Hinchcliffe’s crew elected to pass up this morning’s warmup practice after overnight rain left the track in tricky conditions. They are banking on a dry track for the race.
“Nothing to be learned,” team co-owner Sam Schmidt said of the decision to skip the practice. “It’s risk versus reward.”
Will Power of Team Penske captured the Verizon P1 Award in qualifying Saturday and will start the race from the pole position for the fourth time. A total of 21 cars are in the field, including those for drivers Ed Jones, Spencer Pigot and Zach Veach who will be driving a Verizon IndyCar Series race at Barber for the first time.
Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama fast facts:
Track: Barber Motorsports Park, a 17-turn, 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham, Alabama
Race distance: 90 laps / 207 miles
Green flag: 3:42 p.m. ET
Race fuel: 75 gallons of Sunoco E85R ethanol
Push-to-pass: 200 total seconds available with a maximum duration of 20 seconds per use (each use provides approximately 60 additional horsepower
Defending race winner: Simon Pagenaud, Team Penske
Telecasts: 3 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network