James Hinchcliffe had hoped for Pocono Raceway to be a place to turn around sagging fortunes in his Verizon IndyCar Series season, and for most of the first half of the race it looked that way.
From 12th on the grid, his Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew delivered him an early excellent stop that vaulted him five positions – 10th to fifth – on Lap 26. With a risky but good low downforce setup, Hinchcliffe continued to advance forward and was into the lead by Lap 86.
But shortly thereafter Hinchcliffe locked up his tires on another stop, having overshot his box, and dropped back.
What followed in the next few laps shifted from heroic to gut-wrenching in the span of one caution.
Hinchcliffe somehow, miraculously, saved his No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda through Turn 1 when in traffic past the halfway point. While outside of Carlos Munoz on Lap 102, Hinchcliffe washed up and somehow saved his car at more than 200 mph.
“I was at Grandview Speedway watching a dirt race the other night so I guess I learned some tips,” Hinchcliffe joked to NBCSN’s Robin Miller when describing how on earth he hung on.
Alas, it all came unglued for him a bit later after teammate Sebastian Saavedra wasn’t so lucky in Turn 1, having pancaked the wall with his No. 7 Lucas Oil SPM Honda on Lap 116.
Following the restart, Hinchcliffe washed up into JR Hildebrand on Lap 125, which took his longtime friend and competitor in the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, with the two cars both having heavy contact.
Hinchcliffe took the blame after the incident, but even Hildebrand felt apologetic as well.
“It was a racing deal. There were a bunch of guys two wide (ahead); I was on inside of JR,” Hinchcliffe told Miller. “There was a bunch of understeer, and it pitched him sideways.
“Ultimately it’s my fault because we shouldn’t have been back there. Guys had a killer first stop. Had a really good race going, but I screwed up on the stop.”
The incident for Hildebrand capped off a tough weekend where he was slowest qualifier, but started 19th ahead of three drivers – teammate and team owner Ed Carpenter, Helio Castroneves and Ryan Hunter-Reay – who were unable to complete or make qualifying attempts.
“We ran two-wide, and the guys in front of us went two-wide. I had a bunch of push. It wasn’t leaving enough room,” Hildebrand said.
“We fought the car all day. We made good fuel economy. It’s frustrating to have it end that way. And it’s a bummer to have it take out Hinch that way. We tried to find it; tried to tune the car. But it wasn’t quite there. Maybe it would have been towards the end. A really unfortunate way to end a tough weekend. We’ll get through it.”
If there’s a saving grace for Hildebrand ahead of next week’s race at Gateway Motorsports Park, it’s that the Ed Carpenter Racing team’s best performances of 2017 have come on short ovals, and Hildebrand has scored two podium finishes at Phoenix (third place) and Iowa (second).
For Hinchcliffe, Gateway represents the final oval for the SPM team to get some kind of result – his 10th place at Iowa is the team’s only top-10 result in the five oval races this season.