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Hildebrand, however, found the best therapy of all by returning to the cockpit of his No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy's Vodka Chevrolet last weekend at Phoenix Raceway. After qualifying third on Friday night, Hildebrand raced hard and fast to secure a third-place finish in his return to action in Saturday night's Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix.
In many ways, the No. 21 Chevy has become the “therapy car” for Ed Carpenter Racing.
Last year, Josef Newgarden suffered a broken clavicle and broken bone in his right hand in a serious crash at Texas Motor Speedway on June 12. Hildebrand filled in for Newgarden at a test session but Newgarden was back in the car for the next race and finished eighth at Road America. Two weeks later, Newgarden set an Indy car record by leading 282 laps in a dominating win at Iowa Speedway.
This year, it was Hildebrand who was injured, this time in a last-lap crash April 9 at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. He missed the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama on April 23 at Barber Motorsports Park, replaced by Zach Veach in the No. 21. Hildebrand returned at Phoenix with his best finish of the season and best since he ran second in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
“I hope it doesn't become that now,” team owner Ed Carpenter, who finished seventh at Phoenix in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, said about the changing driver situation in the No. 21 car. “I don't like dealing with hurt drivers and replacements drivers. I just want to have JR and Spencer Pigot (driver of the No. 20 Chevy on street and road courses) and myself for the rest of the year.
“Unfortunately, we've seen this twice now the past two years with Josef and now JR. He was super-motivated to get back in the car just like Josef was. It was a bummer that he couldn't make Barber, but it's great he got his first podium here with the team and hopefully it's one of many to come.
“The whole team did a great job after the problems we had on my car on Friday, battling back to seventh was pretty good the way this race went. We'll take this as a victory and know we have great short-track cars so we are looking forward to Iowa and St. Louis.”
Hildebrand showed no signs of pain from his left hand after 250 fierce laps around the 1.022-mile short oval that features high lateral G-forces.
“The hand didn't bug me at all,” Hildebrand said. “The hand isn't that bad at all. When I went out on the last run with sticker tires and high grip level, having such a good car made a huge difference. I need some ice but it's all good.
A good car was the medicine Hildebrand needed.
“The car was awesome,” Hildebrand said. “It was a little tricky on those starts and restarts and I was having a hard time fighting everybody off, but coming toward the end of the race it was just awesome. The guys had me totally dialed in. We were really close on the grip level and was able to get (past) Helio Castroneves and Josef Newgarden in the race. I thought we had something for Will Power at the end, but we couldn't get the timing right.
“I'm happy to break up the Penske sandwich and really excited for the team to get the result this weekend.”
That “Penske sandwich” had Hildebrand in between the top two finishers – Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud, the winner of the race, second-place Power and fourth-place Castroneves.
“He did a great job for us,” said Brent “Woody” Harvey, Hildebrand’s race strategist. “He ran the whole race. The balance of the car was really good. He did a great qualifying run to get us a good starting spot. We were quite a bit faster than those other guys in traffic. You can't ask for anything more.
“The team is pretty good. We have a good core group that was built around Josef. JR is a great driver so we are expecting more results just like this.”
Hildebrand and Carpenter are scheduled to participate in the open test today on the 1.25-mile oval at Gateway Motorsports Park outside St. Louis. Track action will stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com, with Verizon IndyCar Series sessions scheduled from 1-4 and 5:30-8:30 p.m. ET.
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