Carpenter and Hildebrand. Photo: IndyCar

JR Hildebrand proving an invaluable asset to ECR’s 2016 season

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Reserve drivers aren’t really a “thing” in the Verizon IndyCar Series like they are in Formula 1, but Ed Carpenter Racing has used one to its advantage throughout 2016.

While it’s perhaps a shame that JR Hildebrand isn’t in a full-time seat – people probably forget how good the 28-year-old Californian who now lives in Denver still is – Hildebrand’s work with Carpenter this year has easily been the most important of his three years with the team.

Hildebrand has raced at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in an extra Carpenter car each of the last three years but this year has seen him take on a much greater role, if by unfortunate circumstances.

Josef Newgarden’s crash at the now-postponed Texas Motor Speedway race on June 12 forced Hildebrand into action with INDYCAR adding more in-season test days this year. Newgarden was, only temporarily, sidelined with a broken right clavicle and right hand injury.

With Newgarden sidelined for pre-race tests at Road America and Iowa Speedway, Hildebrand has stepped into the No. 21 Direct Supply or Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet admirably to work on setup and develop a baseline for both events.

It’s worth noting that Newgarden’s car might not have been as locked in as it was for Road America – when he pressed through to drive from 20th on the grid up to eighth – without Hildebrand’s feedback and setup.

To hear Hildebrand tell it though, he knew he was really only going to be on standby figuring Newgarden would do everything in his power to make the race. That selflessness is what has made him a huge asset this year.

“I’ve showed up here knowing it was likely that he was going to be able to drive,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports after Road America.

“I mean, I figured from early in the week that if he gets to the point that he can try it, that he’s probably going to be good enough to go for the rest of the weekend. So that was sort of honestly my expectation and showed he was able to do a good job.

“I’m here in a reserve role, that’s kind of my gig with these guys. Certainly if anything happened, I’d have been ready to go. I’ll test for them at Iowa this week, just to give him a bit of a break so it’s all good.”

Newgarden has hailed Hildebrand’s work throughout this year and particularly over the last month.

“JR has been a huge asset to us. He’s like a driver to us full-time anyway,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.

“He’s been huge for me, a lot of advice, coaching, so it’s been nice having him around. He got us squared away for race weekend.”

Hildebrand, without being in the cockpit, wound up in a driver analyst role for IndyCar Radio on the IMS Radio Network during the Road America race.

That provided him a lot of extra insight into how a race evolves from a strategy standpoint that he can use to what he’s already learned and developed over his driving career.

“They have a lot of information to work with there but I think the things that are interesting for us is really understanding what the pit windows are and what the segment times are as you go through the lap,” Hildebrand explained.

“You have so much information on the timing stands. You feel like you’re flying blind a little bit up in the broadcast booth, you don’t know exactly what’s going on with anybody. It’s still cool to see and obviously I sort of know enough about what the look for, what the pit windows should be and where guys have been at to pick up on some of that stuff.

“It’s so interesting to watch and obviously there at the end with that late race caution, all kinds of stuff going on on track. You can hardly keep up with it.”

As noted, Hildebrand tested last week at Iowa to dial in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for this weekend’s race. Newgarden, who’s noted Iowa will be a tougher test for him, thanked Hildebrand for his efforts.

“We had a great test and I am super thankful to JR Hildebrand for getting us in a great spot going into the weekend,” Newgarden said in the team’s pre-race advance.

“We just need to show up and execute well. If we do, I think we have all the ingredients necessary to have a strong weekend.”

IndyCar’s revised schedule gives Tony Kanaan an extra race in 2020

INDYCAR Photo by Joe Skibinski
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Tony Kanaan got a bit of good news when the latest revised NTT IndyCar Series schedule was released Monday.

Kanaan’s “Ironman Streak” of 317 consecutive starts would have concluded with the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 15. That race was postponed, and the races that followed have been canceled or rescheduled later in the year. The season tentatively is scheduled to start June 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is the reason for the tentative nature of this year’s 2020 NTT IndyCar Series schedule.

Kanaan, the 2004 IndyCar Series champion and 2013 Indianapolis 500 winner, started the season with a limited schedule for A.J. Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Chevrolet. That schedule included all five oval races, including the 104th Indianapolis 500.

A silver lining for Kanaan is that this year’s trip to Iowa Speedway will be a doubleheader, instead of a single oval contest. His schedule has grown from five to six races for 2020, should the season start on time with the June 6 contest at Texas Motor Speedway and the additional race at Iowa.

“I’m really happy that IndyCar has been very proactive about the schedule and keeping us posted with the plans,” Kanaan told NBCSports.com Tuesday afternoon from his home in Indianapolis. “I’m double happy that now with Iowa being a doubleheader, I’m doing six races instead of five.”

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Kanaan’s “Last Lap” is something that many fans and competitors in IndyCar want to celebrate. He has been a fierce foe on the track but also a valued friend outside the car to many of his fellow racers.

He also has been quite popular with fans and likely is the most popular Indianapolis 500 driver of his generation.

Scott Dixon was Kanaan’s teammate at Chip Ganassi Racing from 2013-17. At one time, they were foes but eventually became friends.

“I hope it’s not T.K.’s last 500,” Dixon told NBCSports.com. “I was hoping T.K. would get a full season. That has changed. His first race of what was going to his regular season was going to be the 500. Hopefully, that plays out.

“You have to look at T.K. for who he is, what he has accomplished and what he has done for the sport. He has been massive for the Indianapolis 500, for the city of Indianapolis to the whole culture of the sport. He is a legend of the sport.

“We had our differences early in our career and had problems in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 when we were battling for championships. We fought for race wins and championships in the 2000s. I’ve been on both sides, where he was fighting against me in a championship or where he was fighting with me to go for a championship. He is a hell of a competitor; a fantastic person.

“I hope it’s not his last, but if it is, I hope it’s an extremely successful one for him this season.”

Even before Kanaan joined Chip Ganassi Racing, Dixon admitted he couldn’t help but be drawn to Kanaan’s personality.

“T.K. is a very likable person,” Dixon said. “You just have to go to dinner with the guy once, and you understand why that is. The ups and downs were a competitive scenario where he was helping you for a win or helping someone else for a win. There was never a dislike or distrust. We always got along very well.

“We are very tight right now and really close. He is a funny-ass dude. He has always been a really good friend for me, that’s for sure.”

Back in 2003 when both had come to the old Indy Racing League after beginning their careers in CART, the two drivers were racing hard for the lead at Twin Ring Motegi in Japan on April 13, 2003. They were involved in a hard crash in Turn 2 that left Kanaan broken up with injuries. IRL officials penalized Dixon for “aggressive driving.” Dixon had to sit out the first three days of practice for the next race – the 2003 Indianapolis 500.

Kanaan recovered in time and did not miss any racing. He started second and finished third in that year’s Indy 500.

“We were racing hard and going for the win,” Dixon recalled of the Motegi race. “It was a crucial part of the season. Everybody has to be aggressive. I respect Tony for that. He was not letting up. That is what I always saw with Tony, how hard the guy will push. He will go to the absolute limit, and that is why he was inspiring and why he was a successful driver.

“Those moments are blips. You might not talk to the guy for a week, but then you are back on track. T.K. is very close with our family and we are with his.”

This season, because of highly unusual circumstances, T.K.’s IndyCar career will last for one more race than previously scheduled.

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500