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Extra testing helped prepare JR Hildebrand for 2017 full-time return

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One of the standout drivers of this weekend’s Verizon IndyCar Series Prix View test at Phoenix International Raceway was JR Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet for Ed Carpenter Racing.

Despite an incident at the end of the fourth and final session on Saturday, Hildebrand posted the unofficial fastest lap in PIR history earlier in the day at 19.0401 seconds and 193.234 mph around the 1.022-mile oval.

Hildebrand is back in a full-time seat for the first time in five years, since racing with Panther Racing in 2012, but despite the gap in full-time years, Hildebrand has still been part of the ECR and IndyCar fabric for the last three years.

Last year’s midseason testing, where Hildebrand was called upon as an injury fill-in for Josef Newgarden at Road America, Iowa and Mid-Ohio, not only kept him race ready but gave him a good variety of circuits to know what to expect with this year’s aero kit. It also positioned him as a logical replacement if Newgarden left ECR, which he did.

“Yeah, it helped a lot for me, both the diversion at this of tracks and situations that were a part of that,” Hildebrand told NBC Sports.

“I’d been used to running at the (INDYCAR) GP and obviously on the Speedway, but running at Iowa, running at Road America and then again at Mid-Ohio, you definitely — those are all places where you’re doing something fairly different.

“So for me to have that added familiarity with the types of things, particularly, that Josef was looking for in the race car, somebody who clearly had been finding what he was looking for, knew what he was looking for and was making good on that on the track, you know, that was really valuable for me, actually, to be coming into this year and have a little bit more of a sense of what’s fast, what’s not, what do I need for the car to be able to do and have started that process ahead of time.

“Definitely one of the more significant differences between now and when I was racing full time last is just that we’re in the full aero kit program now. I think that that definitely helped me, and I think will continue to be something that helps going forward.”

Newgarden, now with Team Penske, thinks Hildebrand will be an intriguing driver to watch this season.

“I think JR is going to do a great job. I’m actually really interested to see how JR does,” Newgarden said. “I’m really happy for him that he’s back in the series. I think he worked really hard to get another shot with a great team like ECR, so you’re going to see much of the same from them. They’re going to be a very challenging opponent for us.”

The excitement for Hildebrand is coming with the fact he knows this test this week, as well as an upcoming test at his hometown track of Sonoma Raceway on Tuesday, is in full preparation for the rest of the season.

“It starts to hit you like this time of year that it’s like, oh, we’re going to St. Pete and I’m going to race! It’s like, we’re not just going to hang out,” he laughed.

Carpenter, himself, said Hildebrand’s stability in the past is what’s made the transition less difficult for 2017.

“In a lot of ways, I don’t really feel like it’s that much change, because JR has been a part of this team the past three years,” Carpenter said.

“Even though he hasn’t been in the car as much as we wanted, he was still kind of in tune with what we were doing all the time, communicating with myself, Josef, the engineers. So it’s not your typical like new driver coming into a team.

“He’s pretty familiar with how we operate, and with most of the key people. We’ve had couple changes in engineering, so that’s really where the biggest change is at is getting those relationships built and familiarity with the car and driver.”

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

Helio Castroneves IMSA IndyCar
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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”