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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.”

New schedule has Josef Newgarden seeing double (points) again in 2020

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Two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske believes the latest revised schedule for 2020 will change his approach to the season.

The new schedule has the defending IndyCar champion looking at ways to double the possibilities for a second consecutive championship.

“When I look at the whole schedule they released now, I look at it as double-points as a whole in all of them,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com Monday. “Iowa is double points on a short oval. There are double points at the Indy GP because there are two races and a road course. Then double points at Laguna, which is a different road course than IMS. And there is double points in the Indianapolis 500.”

IndyCar announced to team owners two weeks ago that the season finale (once scheduled for Laguna Seca and now at St. Petersburg) will no longer be a double-points event. But Monday’s schedule revision essentially adds three double points-style races to the Indy 500’s double-points format, Newgarden said.

“Those are four events where you have to be quite strong,” Newgarden said. “They are all very different from each other. Each one is critical to get right. Iowa has a chance to be the most difficult. From a physical standpoint, it’s already a physical track for one race. To double it up on one weekend will be quite the toll for the drivers.

“It will be a very big test physically to see who will get that weekend right. You can bag a lot of points because of it.”

Just 12 days after the first schedule revision, IndyCar officials announced another revised schedule Monday because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

The new schedule features doubleheader weekends at Iowa Speedway in July and Laguna Seca in September. There is an additional race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course Oct. 3.

That race will be known as the IndyCar Harvest Grand Prix. It will be the second time in Indianapolis Motor Speedway history that an IndyCar race is held in the fall. The only other time was the Harvest Auto Racing Classic, a series of three races won by Johnny Aitken on Sept. 9, 1916.

The Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix scheduled for May 30-31 will be dropped from the 2020 schedule. Michigan has a “Stay at Home” order that won’t be lifted in time to start construction of the Belle Isle street course.

Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles said the Detroit event will return in 2021.

The IMS road course essentially will have a doubleheader spaced out by nearly three months. The first race will be the GMR IndyCar Grand Prix on July 4, and the second will be Oct. 3 in the Harvest Grand Prix.

The extra doubleheaders combined with the loss of Detroit gives IndyCar a 15-race schedule for 2020. It started out as a 17-race campaign, but April’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, the Acura Grand Prix of Indianapolis and the AutoNation IndyCar Classic at Circuit of The Americas (COTA) have been canceled. The season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg is being revived as the season finale on a TBA weekend in October.

Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Newgarden also is excited about the chance to run at Indianapolis for three major races in one season. Of course, that all depends on how soon IndyCar can return to action because of the global pandemic.

“I’m continually excited about the thought of getting back to the race track,” Newgarden said. “We would love to be there now, but we can’t. With the current situation, everyone is trying to do the best they can to pitch in and do their part so we can get back to the track as quickly as possible.

“I’m excited to get back to racing at some point in the future. To see that is planned to start at Texas is still great. IndyCar has done a great job staying active and fluid with the ever-changing dynamics and current situation.

“We have three opportunities at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. There are a lot of chances to get it right at the Mecca of our sport.

“I have a lot of trust and faith in IndyCar and Roger, and they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.”

The one downer to the revised schedule is the loss of the Detroit doubleheader, a very important weekend to Team Penske because Roger Penske also owns the Detroit race. It’s a chance to showcase the series in front of as “Motor City” crowd, which is also the home to the Penske Corp.

“It’s a shame that we miss any event this year,” Newgarden said. “As a racer, you look forward to each one of them. If any of them drop off, it’s a tough pill. Detroit is more so because it is such an important race for us at Team Penske. It’s in our backyard for Penske Corp. Also, our relationship with Chevrolet, how much they put I that event and try to get it right for everybody involved. It’s tough to not have a go at that this year.

“I think of the volunteers. The Detroit weekend is so well run and executed with such a positive momentum behind it for the last eight years that I’ve gone there. I’ve always enjoyed that weekend off the back of the Indy 500.

“It’s a shame we will miss that this year, but I look forward to getting back there in 2021 and getting it started again.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500