MotorSportsTalk continues its annual review of the Verizon IndyCar Series drivers that raced in 2017. American JR Hildebrand made a welcome return to full-time action, but struggled more often than not in an ultimate one-and-done season with Ed Carpenter Racing.
JR Hildebrand, No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet
- 2016: 23rd place (2 starts), Best Finish 6th, Best Start 15th, 0 Top-5, 1 Top-10, 4 Laps Led, 15.5 Avg. Start, 14.0 Avg. Finish
- 2017: 15th place, Best Finish 2nd, Best Start 2nd, 2 Podiums, 2 Top-5, 2 Top-10, 42 Laps Led, 15.2 Avg. Start, 13.6 Avg. Finish
There was a lot of optimism around JR Hildebrand at the start of the year upon his welcome and deserved return to a full-time ride in IndyCar for the first time in five years. Sadly by the end of the year, with revisionist history, it appears the optimism was misguided after Hildebrand endured a challenging season thanks to a variety of factors, and now sees him sidelined after just one season.
Hildebrand, who’s an adjunct professor at Stanford and deferred his MIT enrollment and new engineer Justin Taylor, an Audi LMP1 sports car veteran, presented a pairing that on paper was high on fresh ideas and IQ points. The meeting of the minds though resulted in IndyCar setups that were largely outside the box, and rarely paid dividends in terms of actual finishes.
With the baseline ECR setup on ovals from 2016, Hildebrand shone brightest. A brilliant third place occurred at Phoenix, and came only a week after missing Barber with a broken bone in his left hand. Similarly at Iowa, he was unlucky to lose the pole because Will Power beat his time going out last, and then lost the race win in traffic before finishing second to Helio Castroneves. Other oval races saw missed opportunities, with a penalty at Indianapolis and crashes at Pocono and Gateway – although neither was Hildebrand’s fault.
Somewhat surprisingly those two podium finishes were Hildebrand’s only top-10 finishes all year, and the gambles on road and street courses didn’t come good. Spencer Pigot out-qualified him in seven of the 10 races they were teammates. Granted there were a couple times Hildebrand got unlucky, running deeper into a fuel stint and then getting caught out by a yellow flag, but those were few and far between.
It was disappointing that the Hildebrand/Taylor tandem didn’t pay off in the way ECR might have hoped. And more disconcertingly for Hildebrand, now 29, having been afforded a second full-time chance, he may not get another one from here.