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JR Hildebrand’s second chance comes with faith, persistence to return

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JR Hildebrand is not the first, nor will he be the last, talented driver sidelined from a full-time seat in the Verizon IndyCar Series. But he is in rarified air among those coming back to a full-time ride after an extended hiatus.

Simon Pagenaud stands out as the most recent and obvious example, coming back after a long layoff from open-wheel to eventually rise to capture this year’s Verizon IndyCar Series title. Oriol Servia and Graham Rahal each spent the 2010 seasons out of the cockpit before coming back full-time in 2011. The late Englishmen Dan Wheldon and Justin Wilson were both destined for full-time returns in their next years without a full-time seat, before tragedy intervened.

Point being though that the opportunities are rare and when second chances do come around, it comes as a result often of pluck, determination, faith and most importantly, presence.

Hildebrand’s been out of a full-time seat since getting sacked by Panther Racing midway through 2013 but he hasn’t disappeared from the scene, and that’s important to note.

He and Ed Carpenter first had a beer not long after John Barnes – who’d hailed Hildebrand’s demeanor and class in 2011 after that loss at Indianapolis – to determine a possible course of action to get “Captain America” back in a car full-time.

And the groundwork laid from the last three years, admittedly in only five race starts but also a number of tests, should make it easier for Hildebrand to be a natural replacement for Josef Newgarden in Carpenter’s No. 21 Chevrolet going into 2017. His work outside the cockpit with Stanford as an adjunct lecturer and with his STEM knowledge has kept his name in the picture off race weekends as well.

“I think the chemistry of the team, the cohesion that we already have I think is going to accelerate this and make it less of a rebuild, but more of a continuation of what we had been than if we had gone a different direction,” Carpenter explained during a conference call today with reporters.

“There were a lot of conversations that were had. We talked to quite a few people. But JR was always at the top of the list of someone we wanted to work with. JR and I have been talking about this before he ever ran a car for us at Indy for the first time.

“It took us a little longer than I think any of us initially thought it would to get to this point. But JR has done a good job for us, has been patient with me as an owner and us as a team getting here.”

Said Hildebrand: “Being able to get a little bit more seat time this year during the season in that role, you know, filling in for Josef, knowing that mattered for him, mattered for the team, that it wasn’t just some sort of off-season program, it was very specific around goals they were trying to achieve in the middle of the year, our ability to work together, the ease of being able to kind of jump into that and play that role, be around during the race weekends, being a little bit more involved throughout that process I think just fired me up about the opportunity to be doing that myself on a more full-time basis.

“I think that really gave me a lot of energy to sort of sit there and go, Yes, I want to be back here doing this, not just because I feel like I’ve got unfinished business, but because I really want to be here. I really enjoy it. I sort of am ready to take advantage of that type of opportunity.”

Hildebrand said – not to “blow smoke” at Carpenter – but he felt his best three IndyCar races were his three Indianapolis 500s he’s spent with Carpenter, of which he finished in the top-10 in each.

Hildebrand said it’s not quite an apples-to-apples comparison in terms of his return to a full-time seat versus others who’d been sidelined, then have returned.

“I think in the end, every situation like this is sort of different in terms of what the requirements are for, A, just getting back in a position to be full-time, and B, what you maybe need to bring to the table in that situation,” he explained.

“That makes it a little bit difficult to compare and contrast against other drivers in similar situations just because I think every individual situation is fairly different. You definitely appreciate sort of the words of encouragement from different guys. Obviously nothing really replaces being around and being present, hunting for those opportunities along the way to continue to show that not only do you still have it, but you care enough to pursue the opportunities that are there.

“I think in some ways that’s kind of all you can do. I mean, you can stress out a lot about whether or not it’s going to end up working out. In the end, you know, you got to kind of just have faith that you’re pursuing something that you really have a lot of drive to do, and rely on that to hopefully mean something.

“I tried to remain sort of objective about what the likely opportunities were, how probable they might be to actually pan out. Now that I’ve sort of gotten this opportunity, there were definitely be some time spent trying to make sure that I sort of maximize the chance.”

Carpenter said the likely first test for Hildebrand should be early December – without saying it, Sebring is a likely destination. Commercial considerations are still being worked on but the likelihood is Hildebrand will mirror Newgarden in having multiple liveries from the same partners. And the engineer on the car will need to get sorted with Jeremy Milless having departed for Andretti Autosport.

But with the natural evolution for Hildebrand of part-time but present to full-time, Carpenter said things should go smoothly in the transition process.

“I think one of the luxuries that we have, kind of going along with your last question to JR, I think even though he’s just run the races in May with us the past two years, in our mind he’s been a part of the team beyond that,” Carpenter said.

“Especially with the added testing last year at Road America and Iowa, he’s somewhat been dialed in with what we’ve been working on, at least what it was in ’16.

“That will make it a lot easier to get fully up to speed and integrated into what we’re focusing on getting ready for 2017, whether it’s continuing to find a way to win the Indy 500, and along the same lines improving in other areas where we need to improve to better ourselves to win more races and to be in a better position to compete for the championship at the end of the year.”

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