AVONDALE, Ariz. – The last first-time winner in the Verizon IndyCar Series came on an oval, when Alexander Rossi captured last year’s 100th Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil.
The guy who could well have captured his first career victory five years earlier in 2011, JR Hildebrand, remains in search of ‘ol first win number one. But he’s got a good chance to do so tonight in his No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, as he’ll roll off from a career-best third on the grid in the Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix (9 p.m. ET, NBCSN).
The qualifying result for Hildebrand eclipses a previous best set twice: fourth at Iowa in 2011, and at Fontana in 2012, both with Panther Racing but in separate iterations of cars. This marks Hildebrand’s first top-five start since that Fontana race in September of that year, and easily eclipses his other 2017 starts of 19th and 15th on the two street course races to start the year.
In some respects Hildebrand’s pace this weekend is not a surprise; he was the pace-setter during the open test here in February. However, after missing Barber owing to his broken bone in his left hand, the more important aspect of his performance this weekend is that he’s back on song and comfortable – best as he can be – for today’s 250-lap race.
“I think with the kind of injury that I’m dealing with and the surgery that I had, an oval definitely is a little easier just literally turning left versus turning right even,” Hildebrand said after practice, when he was second to Josef Newgarden – who will start alongside him tonight on Row 2.
“So it felt better than honestly I thought it would in practice. I didn’t have any, like, major issues. I got a couple of different braces that I’m kind of playing around with and stuff like that. But felt like I got it pretty dialed in. Feel good about qualifying today and then the race tomorrow as well.”
Hildebrand was in a unique situation at Barber where he watched someone else in his car – a situation he hadn’t been afforded since Panther showed him the door after the 2013 Indianapolis 500. His starts since, it’s been Hildebrand in either a fill-in or extra entry, usually at Ed Carpenter Racing.
“It was definitely different to be watching in that situation than it was last year, you know, or in years past when I’ve been stepping in for testing or whatever and doing that on behalf of other guys,” he said. “It was painful to sit there and watch, but I think was in the end the only, you know, feasible kind of way to get through that weekend.”
That being said, Hildebrand wound up playing the mentor role well to Zach Veach, who methodically and consistently improved over the weekend on debut. It flashed back nicely to Hildebrand’s own debut at Mid-Ohio 2010 under nearly identical circumstances.
“I filled in for Mike Conway at Mid-Ohio back in 2010 in sort of similar conditions,” Hildebrand explained.
“Yeah, I mean, knowing this was going to be sort of a short-term thing, in particular, I wanted for the team’s sake to be able to get as much as they could out of having Zach in the car in my absence. That in some ways sort of requires that Zach is up to speed.
“But being a driver myself, being in that situation before, I know that it helps a lot to have somebody that, you know, is kind of just there to help you through whatever those difficulties and challenges are.
“Barber is a really tough place. He had some testing time at Sonoma, which is not really super relevant going into Barber. And on top of that, like, we were not great there when we tested there previously.
“You know, he was in for an uphill battle going in. He had a great attitude about the whole thing. I thought he made evident progression through the weekend. You know, was definitely helpful for the team and did a good job for himself.”
Hildebrand also noted that he wouldn’t have been in this position in the first place had he not had the contact with Mikhail Aleshin at Long Beach that put him into the wall and caused the hand injury.
“Yeah, he came over and told me he didn’t block me while I was still sitting in the car. Then he got a penalty 30 seconds later for doing that. Whatever,” Hildebrand deadpanned.
“I don’t have hard feelings about it, for sure. But, you know, I think that there’s definitely a track record that, you know, he’s begun to build up.”
Hildebrand will look for his second career podium at least if he can finish where he starts – in a weird quirk, his only career IndyCar top-three finish has come at a race where there is not the traditional podium ceremony for top-three finishers, that aforementioned 2011 Indianapolis 500.
Tonight gives him a great opportunity to break that run of tough luck and get a result to match his determination and will to return.