IndyCar 2017 driver review: JR Hildebrand

Getty Images
0 Comments

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.

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
0 Comments

On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)