Beginning next week and lasting for a span of eight days, racing will be a new experience for JR Hildebrand.
Or, more specifically, racetracks will be a new experience for him.
That’s because Hildebrand will be competing on two critical ovals – Pocono Raceway and Gateway Motorsports Park – for the first time in his eight-year Verizon IndyCar Series career. And, considering his team’s recent history on oval tracks, that’s welcome news.
Ed Carpenter Racing has proven itself on ovals, as has Hildebrand. Team owner Ed Carpenter has victories at Texas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Speedway – and one at Kentucky Speedway before forming his own team – along with Indianapolis 500 pole positions in 2013 and 2014. Hildebrand, of course, has a runner-up finish at Indy in 2011, as well as podiums this year at Phoenix Raceway and Iowa Speedway.
“As a group, we’ve been good at Indy for a bunch of years in a row, and this year we’ve been good at short oval stuff,” Hildebrand said. “(Pocono and Gateway are) different, but there are still some parallels. These are the type of places where ECR tends to be competitive and has a good general strategy and mentality for what you need to do to be competitive.”
Still, he isn’t entirely pleased with his accomplishments so far this season. While Iowa and Phoenix were highlights, along with a second-row start at Indy, Hildebrand and the No. 21 Chevrolet have struggled at times on road and street courses.
He’s encouraged and positive, but not satisfied.
“I wouldn’t say at this point that I’m entirely satisfied with what we’ve done,” Hildebrand said. “I feel really good about how we’ve executed when we’ve had chances to be standing on the podium. As a group in total, when we’ve had those opportunities, we’ve capitalized on them. I feel good about that. That is definitely something I’m proud of – the way we’ve worked together and handled it over the season. When we’ve been in those positions, we’ve held on to them and made good of them.”
Despite missing the Barber Motorsports Park race in April after breaking a bone in his left hand two weeks before at Long Beach, Hildebrand is 15th in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings. Aside from the podium finishes at Phoenix and Iowa, he has finished between 11th and 18th in his other 10 races.
“We’ve still been searching. Whether it’s me or the team, it’s a been a group effort where in the end we’re still searching and haven’t quite gotten to where we can be,” he said.
“That’s been particularly true on the road courses this year. We’ve made some gains and have been improving and we know that, but we have a tough time pulling those weekends together from start to finish. You have to recognize that you’re not always going to have the yellows fall your way, but how you compete throughout weekends is indicative of progress and improvement. I feel like for all of us that has not been on the arc we anticipated we’d be able to get on from the beginning of the season.”
In the last two races, Hildebrand and ECR were using a strategy that could have worked had it not been for interruptions from yellow flags. Instead of building on the momentum of the runner-up effort at Iowa, Hildebrand recorded a 13th-place finish at Toronto and a 17th-place finish at Mid-Ohio.
“We were doing the right thing, and we were in the right spot, but it just didn’t work out,” Hildebrand said. “It would be nice to be in a situation where we’re less reliant on everything totally coming together and being able to see more genuine pace and understanding of how to be closer to the sharp end of the stick on a more frequent basis. I feel good about what we’re doing and how we’re seeking to do that, but it’s just taking a little bit longer than we had hoped or anticipated to be able to show that.”
Next up are four races at which Hildebrand expects to find positive results – Pocono and Gateway because of ECR’s and Hildebrand’s ability on ovals, and Watkins Glen International and Sonoma Raceway, where he won races on his way to the Indy Lights championship in 2009.
“I don’t have a specific goal in mind in terms of where we want to be in the championship or any results-based aims for any of the last four races,” Hildebrand explained. “In the next two, I think we can expect to be pretty competitive. My goal is to keep it in the window and execute once we’re there. For the last two races, the goal is to be on top of things and get the most out of them.”
But his immediate future belongs to an unusual, three-turn superspeedway at which – based on his and his team’s history and reputation – Hildebrand is confident he can find speed. The ABC Supply 500 weekend at Pocono Raceway takes place Aug. 19-20, with the 500-mile race on the oval airing live at 2 p.m. ET Aug. 20 on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.
“If I had to pick a team to show up at Pocono without much experience, ECR would be it,” Hildebrand said. “I think it bodes well for us to have a good race, even with it being my first time there.”
Following Pocono, the series heads to Gateway outside St. Louis for the Bommarito Automotive Group 500 presented by Valvoline under the lights on Aug. 26. Then it's to Watkins Glen for the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen on Sept. 3. The 2017 season concludes with the GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma on Sept. 17.
For more information about Team Chevy, visit https://www.facebook.com/TeamChevy/.