Hinchcliffe hopes to stay in IndyCar title hunt

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After fading from the IndyCar title picture over the second half of last season, James Hinchcliffe wants to be a threat to the very end in 2013.

Hinchcliffe was second in the championship at the halfway point of 2012, but three DNFs in the final seven races — including an engine failure in front of his Canadian countrymen at Toronto — played a role in his eventual finish of eighth in the standings.

But he isn’t ready to make bad luck an excuse for how his first year with Andretti Autosport ended, and he says he and his No. 27 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet team have found the areas they need to fix.

“Certainly, you look at the first half of [2012] compared to the second half, and the results flat out weren’t there,” Hinchcliffe said today in a media teleconference. “We’ve spent a lot of time — trust me — in the off-season looking at that, going over it event-by-event, and we’ve certainly found some weaknesses and places where we can improve.

“Luck is part of it, but I think you’ve got to work hard to get good luck, and that’s going to be our approach this year — to try and out-work everybody else and hope the rest falls into place.”

A familiar face will also provide Hinchcliffe with help this season. Craig Hampson, who engineered Hinchcliffe’s Rookie of the Year campaign in 2011 for Newman-Haas Racing, has joined the Andretti camp and will re-team with him as engineer on the No. 27 (Hinchcliffe’s previous engineer, Tino Belli, is now technical director at Panther + Dreyer and Reinbold Racing).

“Everything happens for a reason, and for me, that driver-engineer relationship is so, so critical,” said Hinchcliffe, who clearly holds Hampson in high regard. “For me to come with a different engineer from last year, but at least one that I’ve worked with in the past, is such a big step forward.

“Craig’s a tremendous engineer and he’ll be a huge asset to the whole team, but certainly, everyone on the 27 car is excited about the opportunity to work with him, and I’m over the moon about the opportunity to work with him again.”

Hinchcliffe’s always been an optimistic guy, and it looks like he has even more of it going into next month’s IndyCar opener in St. Petersburg, Florida (March 24, Noon ET on NBC Sports Network).

Ricciardo set to see Dale Jr.’s final Texas ride in two weeks (VIDEO)

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We’ve written before about Daniel Ricciardo’s love of Dale Earnhardt and his love of the No. 3, which Ricciardo has selected as his permanent number for the duration of his Formula 1 career. And additionally, Dale Earnhardt Jr. has offered up the opportunity that one day Ricciardo could race a JR Motorsports car in NASCAR Xfinity Series competition, and Ricciardo has said he’d be up for it.

And although Earnhardt Jr. has only used the No. 3 on a handful of occasions in his career in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, Ricciardo knows how much the number means to the NASCAR veteran as he prepares for his final few starts in the Cup Series the tail-end of this year.

After the Mexican Grand Prix next week, Ricciardo is set to stay in North America for the off-week between the Mexican and Brazilian Grands Prix.

In that break, he said he’ll see Earnhardt Jr. in person at the Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (Sunday, Nov. 5, 2 p.m. ET, NBCSN) to ensure he gets to see him before he retires from full-time competition.

Ricciardo explained his planning during Thursday’s pre-race edition of the NBC Sports Group original digital series Paddock Pass, speaking to NBCSN’s Will Buxton at the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of The Americas in Austin.

“Well I’ll see him for the first time in Dallas. I’m gonna go to the NASCAR race in two weeks time at Texas Motor Speedway,” Ricciardo told NBCSN.

“Yeah, so, I gotta see him race before he hangs up the helmet.

“The Earnhardt family is a huge name in motorsport, not only in America but all over the world. Yeah I wish him well.”

Ricciardo is also optimistic he’ll get the chance to do a helmet swap with Earnhardt Jr. at the event.

“Hopefully I get to see him perform well in Texas. I’m gonna try to do a helmet swap with him. We’ll see how we go.”

Stay tuned for more on this over the coming weeks.