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.”