Hildebrand beats Panther in ‘messy’ race; Luhr comes up short of debut finish

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A subplot of the Sonoma weekend was the unofficial “JR Hildebrand vs. Panther Racing” battle that was taking place, even though Hildebrand downplayed it during his media availability on Friday.

To make things awkward, due to the order they had qualified with previous drivers Oriol Servia (Panther) and Luca Filippi (Barracuda Racing) at Mid-Ohio, the two teams were set up directly next to each other all weekend in the paddock and pit lane.

Hildebrand took the edge in both battles – he beat Panther’s Ryan Briscoe in qualifying, 18th to 22nd, and also in the race 16th to 17th. Not that either of those results is anything worth celebrating.

Hildebrand ran as high as 11th but was spun by Tony Kanaan on Lap 21 at Turn 7, and Kanaan was given a drive-through penalty for avoidable contact. Hildebrand recovered but had later contact with Graham Rahal, which dropped him back to 21st, before he made up five more positions by the flag.

“It was just a messy day out there,” Hildebrand said. “With that many yellows, it ends up being kind of a lottery where you actually end up on restarts because the risk/reward factor is quite high.”

Elsewhere, IndyCar debutante Lucas Luhr came up a few laps shy of a finish in the No. 97 RW/Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing Honda. The first German to start an IndyCar race since Andreas Wirth in a Champ Car race at Australia in 2006, Luhr climbed from 24th place to 17th before an engine fire ended his race on Lap 81.

“It was a shame that we couldn’t finish the race because I think we had a possible top 14 or 15 finish in us,” Luhr said. “Toward the end of the race I was getting quicker. I think we were more competitive in the race than we have been all weekend long, and that to me shows that the learning curve is going in the right direction.”

Next up for these three: Barracuda and Panther see Filippi and Servia back for Baltimore, with Hildebrand returning for Barracuda at Fontana. Luhr resumes in his usual Muscle Milk Pickett Racing HPD ARX-03c P1 car in the American Le Mans Series race in Baltimore. Briscoe is back for Level 5 there, as well.

Teammates James Hinchcliffe and Robert Wickens earn top-fives at Barber

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For the first time this season, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammates James Hinchcilffe and Robert Wickens earned top-five finishes in the same race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.

Hinchcliffe finished third in the Grand Prix of Alabama; Wickens was one spot behind in fourth.

Wickens had one previous podium at Phoenix with his second-place finish. Hinchcliffe’s best result was a fourth in the season-opener in St Petersburg, Fla., so this marked his first podium of the year.

Both drivers needed a little help from the rain.

As precipitation began to fall in the closing stages of the race, Hinchliffe asked his team on a couple of occasions if it was wet enough to pit for rain tires. He was told twice to stay out and was then called into to the pits at the optimal time.

“Solid weekend for us after coming here before – not a great test,” Hinchcliffe said. “Two cars in the top 10 qualifying; two cars, top five in the race. Pretty proud of these boys, everybody on the Arrow car.”

The rain helped Wickens’ race strategy come together.

“I was having to save a lot of fuel in that second stint,” Wickens said. “So once (Scott) Dixon starting getting close to me I was thinking ‘Oh God, I’m going to actually have to give this one up.’ And then the rain came, so the fuel mileage happened naturally. So, yeah, it saved us a bit.”

And while both were pleased with their top-five finishes, drivers are rarely satisfied unless they are standing on the top step of the podium.

Wickens’ top-five finish was hard-fought. After winning the pole at St Petersburg and starting sixth at Phoenix, he failed to advance to the Fast 6 in back-to-back races at Long Beach and Barber – qualifying 10th both times.

“I was a little gutted that we came out in a big bunch of traffic,” Wickens continued. “It made the race fun, but a little frustrating as well because of people off sequence and whatnot. We lost a lot of track position there. Both of us could have been fighting for higher steps on the podium, but we need to do a little better job in qualifying. “