NEWTON, Iowa - JR Hildebrand was the Comeback Kid at Iowa Speedway on Saturday.
The 29-year-old from Sausalito, California qualified second for tomorrow’s Iowa Corn 300 after crashing his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet in the morning practice session. Hildebrand’s two-lap average of 183.811 mph on the 0.894-mile oval was on pace to win the Verizon P1 Award for the pole position until Will Power went out as the final qualifier and knocked Hildebrand from the top perch.
Still., the Ed Carpenter Racing driver, who returned to the Verizon IndyCar Series fulltime this season, was delighted to qualify second, which stands as the best start of what will be his 56-race career when the green flag drops this afternoon.
“We came in here expecting to put the car on the front row, so I’m just in a way relieved that we were able to recover from (the crash) and do that,” Hildebrand said. “Otherwise, you want to be able to capitalize on opportunities to get poles when they present themselves. Today certainly would have been one of those days for us. I think in the big scheme of things, we’ll certainly take a front row spot.”
The 2009 Indy Lights presented by Cooper Tire champion crashed when the rear of his car stepped out in Turn 2 and he backed into the SAFER Barrier late in the practice session. Hildebrand escaped with only bruised knees and the No. 21 car sustained minor rear wing damage.
“I hit the bump going through Turn 2 and we bottomed out,” he said. “We were just doing a qualifying (simulation) run and we were probably just too low (on the track). The car felt fine before that.”
The Ed Carpenter Racing crew made the necessary repairs and had Hildebrand’s car in the qualifying line on time. His team performed a similar feat last month during the Rainguard Water Sealers 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, when Hildebrand was caught up in a multi-car crash during the race and the No. 21 crew scrambled to fix it, allowing him to return to the track and pick up valuable positions.
Hildebrand was pleased that the team could not only repair his car, but ultimately make it better with no practice before the qualifying attempt.
“I’ve got all kinds of faith,” he said. “After crashing a car and getting back out in the middle of the race at Texas, I will never question the team guys.”
“We could see that there was something to do with the setup (leading to the Iowa practice crash) to fix the problem that we had.”
It was a good day all around for Ed Carpenter Racing. Team owner Ed Carpenter qualified fourth in the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet (183.503 mph) and was happy with Hildebrand’s resilience.
“That’s a heck of a recovery, it’s not an easy thing to do,” Carpenter said. “I think it shows he’s a professional. When you are a pro and a paid driver, that’s the job you’ve got to go do.
“You don’t want to be in that situation, but when you are, you’ve got to go out and do it, and he did a good job. I think he had a good understanding of what caused the accident earlier (Saturday) and that does make it easier to recover from.”
While Hildebrand has not raced at Iowa Speedway since 2012, he was instrumental last year in setting up then-ECR driver Josef Newgarden’s car in testing while Newgarden recovered from injuries sustained in a crash at Texas. Newgarden returned for the race and dominated, leading a record 282 laps on his way to victory. Hildebrand is using the same winning car this weekend.
Still, getting an ideal setup for the car this weekend has been harder in the changing conditions.
“I feel like it’s been harder to find what we’re looking for,” Hildebrand said. “It’s hotter outside, and it’s trickier to get it to get the car to feel super hooked up this year. It’s been tough for everybody, but I like this place and how it races.”
The last time the Verizon IndyCar Series ran at a short oval, in April at Phoenix Raceway, Ed Carpenter Racing showed some muscle as Hildebrand finished third and Carpenter seventh. Hildebrand, the 2011 Indianapolis 500 runner-up, noted that their unified mindset has made a positive difference.
“I think we both feel pretty strongly with what we’re looking for from the cars,” he said. “The team’s been able to do a really good job of helping us get what we want.
“(Carpenter) and I are both looking for the same thing. I think there is a lot of cohesiveness between what we’re searching for and what we think is going to work, and everybody’s pretty much bought into that philosophy.”
The Iowa Corn 300 airs live on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 5 p.m. ET today.
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