“If you build it ...”
JR Hildebrand is hoping to make this week’s Iowa Corn 300 his personal “Field of Dreams,” as in the Kevin Costner film of the same name set in the Hawkeye State.
The Ed Carpenter Racing driver has two previous starts at Iowa Speedway, including a best race start and finish of fourth in 2011. However, the 29-year-old native Californian’s most recent experience on the 0.894-mile oval may well be what gives him the most confidence for making those dreams come true in Sunday’s 300-lap Verizon IndyCar Series race (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).
IOWA CORN 300: Entry list
A part-time driver for ECR last season, Hildebrand was called in to test the team’s No. 21 Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing in June 2016 after Josef Newgarden – then the regular driver of the car – sustained a broken clavicle and right hand two weeks before in a violent crash at Texas Motor Speedway. Newgarden returned to dominate the Iowa race, leading an Indy car-record 282 laps on his way to victory and crediting Hildebrand’s diligent testing in helping the team craft the perfect car setup.
Fast forward a year. Newgarden is now driving the No. 2 Team Penske Chevrolet and Hildebrand is the fulltime driver of ECR’s No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet. Still in search of that elusive first Verizon IndyCar Series win, Hildebrand senses the opportunity in front of him this weekend.
Needless to say, he’s been anticipating it.
“Yeah, you definitely look forward to it,” Hildebrand said. “Obviously, we were good at Phoenix (where he ran among the leaders all weekend and finished the race in third place). The (team’s) short oval package has been good for a couple of years now.
“Hopefully, it feels familiar when you jump back in. A lot of times, you get a little bit different tire or the track changes a little bit and you’ve got to work around that. But (I) certainly feel positive and optimistic for our chances at a really strong result there.”
Back in an Indy car for a full season for the first time since 2012, Hildebrand hasn’t achieved the results he anticipated. The third place at Phoenix is his only top-10 finish through the first 10 races. He remains confident, however, in first-year Indy car race engineer Justin Taylor, who came over from Audi’s World Endurance Championship program, particularly at another short oval this week.
“(Taylor) was great at Phoenix and that was his first oval ever,” Hildebrand said. “He’s had a really good way of breaking down what we’re doing with the car and, having Phoenix and Indy under our belts, I think we can feel good about what we’re doing going into Iowa.
“We know we should be getting there with something that I’m comfortable with and familiar with, and the team understands the methodology behind it. So hopefully we don’t have to stray too far off the reservation with the setup and we can just get it dialed in like we have a couple of times earlier this year.”
After winning the 2009 Indy Lights championship, Hildebrand made his Verizon IndyCar Series debut for Dreyer & Reinbold Racing for two races the following season. He joined Panther Racing fulltime in 2011, when he had his memorable second-place finish at the Indianapolis 500 and the fourth-place showing at Iowa.
Hildebrand drove for Ed Carpenter Racing in three Indianapolis 500s and two INDYCAR Grands Prix from 2014-16 before being named the fulltime replacement this season for Newgarden. Hildebrand sustained a broken bone in his left hand in a last-lap crash at Long Beach in April, requiring surgery to insert 10 screws. He missed the following race at Barber Motorsports Park and still wears the brace to support the hand and wrist.
“I’ll probably still run (the brace) at Iowa,” Hildebrand said. “It annoys me having it on the road courses, to be honest with you, but ovals, just because I’m turning left instead of right, it’s not quite as cumbersome.
“So I’ll probably still run it in the sake of being a preventative measure, but I’m looking forward to getting that thing off soon, for sure.”
Verizon IndyCar Series practice begins on the banked 0.894-mile Iowa oval at 11 a.m. ET Saturday. Qualifying is set for 3 p.m. Saturday and airs live on NBCSN, with a final 30-minute practice starting at 7:15 p.m. (Both practices stream live on RaceControl.IndyCar.com).
The Iowa Corn 300 is the 11th of 17 races on the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series schedule. Hildebrand ranks 16th in the championship standings heading into the race weekend, 174 points behind leader Scott Dixon of Chip Ganassi Racing.