Hildebrand looks to follow familiar ECR script in return to cockpit

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AVONDALE, Arizona — The significance of a satisfyingly familiar script is not lost on JR Hildebrand.

A driver of Ed Carpenter Racing’s No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet suffers broken bones but improbably returns in 27 days to triumph. That was Josef Newgarden last year, when he overcame a broken right hand and right clavicle to dominate in the Iowa Corn 300.

Hildebrand, hired to replace Newgarden this Verizon IndyCar Series season, broke a bone in his left hand during a last-lap incident in the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach on April 9. The 29-year-old Californian, who had persevered through five years of part-time gigs to regain a full-time ride, hated to miss last week’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama. But he needed more time to heal from surgery.

The hand is still on the mend but didn’t slow him on Friday. Hildebrand, bearing a brace, qualified a career-best third for tonight’s 250-lap Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. He’ll start next to Newgarden’s No. 2 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet on the Phoenix Raceway 1.022-mile oval.

A comparison to Newgarden’s bounce-back performance of a year ago has been mentioned in conversation within the Ed Carpenter Racing camp.

“It’s a nice story,” Hildebrand said. “We expected to be good here anyway, and I’m sure he did at Iowa, too. Hopefully we make good on it. It would be mega.”

Earlier in the day during a two-hour practice, Newgarden continued his momentum from last week’s win by setting the price. Then came Hildebrand posting the second-fastest lap.

Make no mistake, Hildebrand expected to be in the hunt. He turned the fastest lap in a four-session, two-day February open test at Phoenix. 

“It feels good to be coming back here,” he said. “It’s a little easier to get back in the car at a place where you’ve been competitive (in a test) and there was no reason we didn’t expect to be competitive (this weekend). It’s a good spot for us.”

Hildebrand’s best results in a 48-race career have come on ovals, most notably finishing second, sixth and eighth in the Indianapolis 500. He’s also been fourth at Iowa and fifth at Texas. This will be his first start at Phoenix.

Perhaps the best news is Hildebrand isn’t hindered by pain.

“It felt better than I honestly thought it would in practice,” he said. “I didn’t have any major issues. I’ve got a couple of different braces (for the hand) that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that, but I feel like I’ve got it pretty dialed in.”

The brace Hildebrand used in practice, which he wears under his left driving glove, is form-fitted to the steering wheel. He can’t grip the wheel tightly with his last two fingers, but he can still handle maneuvering the car. Other changes were made to the cockpit to help him adjust, but he said that’s commonplace from one race to the next.

“I’m probably using my hand a little bit differently, but I’m certainly not consciously doing anything differently,” Hildebrand said. “I feel very much the same as being here the last time around in terms of what I’m doing and where I’m putting the car and how I’m able to do that. I was a little concerned about getting out of the pit box, which was no stress. It’s not affecting my normal movement pattern, I don’t think.”

If the injury was to his right hand, that’s a different story.

“I think it would definitely be tougher,” he said. “Where it is on my hand and the severity of the injury, it had a lot to do with where I could go and where I couldn’t. Because it’s my left hand and where it is, and you’re sort of pulling with your left hand around here, that’s definitely not as bad as it could have been otherwise.”

His boss, Ed Carpenter, encountered a mechanical issue during practice and qualified last in his No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, so Hildebrand’s efforts were welcome for a team whose best 2017 result through three races has been Spencer Pigot’s eighth-place finish at Long Beach.

Hildebrand finished 13th in the season opener at St. Petersburg, then 11th at Long Beach.

While gusting winds made turning laps trickier Friday, Hildebrand didn’t seem to mind the additional challenge. Anything is better than being sidelined. He’s back in the car and quick.   

“I had a really good strong run there,” he said after qualifying. “We’re really looking forward to the race.”

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