IndyCar 2016 driver review: James Hinchcliffe

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MotorSportsTalk continues its review through the field of Verizon IndyCar Series drivers, driver-by-driver.

James Hinchcliffe was probably better than 13th place in his full-time return to IndyCar following that devastating accident in practice last year. This year, he’s been not just a full-time driver once more, but a series ambassador in so many roles outside the cockpit.

James Hinchcliffe, No. 5 Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda

  • 2015: 23rd Place (5 Starts), 1 Win, Best Start 10th, 1 Podium, 1 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 20 Laps Led, 13.6 Avg. Start, 9.6 Avg. Finish
  • 2016: 13th Place, Best Finish 2nd, 1 Pole, 3 Podiums, 4 Top-5, 9 Top-10, 217 Laps Led, 10.9 Avg. Start, 10.8 Avg. Finish

James Hinchcliffe was a top-10 driver in points most of the year so the fact he fell to 13th by the checkered flag in Sonoma was a bit misleading. As ever, though, the fact he was back at all in 2016 was always going to be one of the year’s top storylines.

Much was made, as expected, when Hinchcliffe scored his dramatic pole position for the 100th Indianapolis 500 slightly more than a year to the day after his near-death crash in practice. But while outside media focused more on the comeback story, inside the beltway, the Hinchcliffe improved dynamic with engineer Allen McDonald and the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports team on the whole was the greater focus. Qualifying was significantly better than it was in his truncated 2015 season, and more than once SPM flew the flag as Honda’s top team over the course of the weekend. In his first seven races this year, Hinchcliffe had six top-10 starts; in 2015, there was only one 10th place in five races. Overall, there were 11 top-10 starts.

And Hinchcliffe got his rewards in the races as well. His podiums at the Indianapolis Grand Prix and Toronto, the latter his home race, were thanks to dynamic strategy from Robert Gue on the box. Sadly while Hinchcliffe excelled by strategy, he also occasionally got caught out by it – a would-be second-place came up empty, literally, at Watkins Glen when the car ran out of fuel on the final lap. Then his and the team’s most dominant drive – at Texas – suffered insult to injury after coming up a fraction short to Graham Rahal when a post-race penalty was assessed for the skid plate being worn.

For the driver whose on-track results have often been erratic, this was easily the most consistent Hinchcliffe has been in five full-time seasons. The weird part is that it produced a career-worst finish in points, an unlucky 13th one spot down from his rookie year of 2011 and his last full-time season with Andretti Autosport in 2014.

Hinchcliffe heads into the offseason now without the focus of the comeback story as it was last year. Instead, he’s busy playing ambassador for the championship, with his turn on “Dancing with the Stars” coming after a couple other national media rounds and appearances this year. It was a year where his off-track accolades drew greater focus, but his on-track performances merited their best scores yet in his IndyCar career.