Photo: IndyCar

SPM sees Hinchcliffe fifth, Wickens sixth in stout ISM qualifying

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Schmidt Peterson Motorsports’ short oval program has typically not been their strong suit. Case and point: James Hinchcliffe’s best finish in two starts at ISM Raceway was 12th last year – he was 18th in 2016.

The team car, driven by Mikhail Aleshin the last two years, hasn’t faired much better, finishing 17th in both races, with Aleshin also spinning in Turn 1, Lap 1 to spark a pileup in last year’s race.

Hinchcliffe and new teammate Robert Wickens also struggled at the ISM Raceway open test in February, turning in the 16th fastest (Wickens) and the 22nd fastest (Hinchcliffe) speeds across the weekend.

Combine that with the knowledge that Wickens is making his Verizon IndyCar Series oval racing debut this weekend, and it would have been understandable to overlook the SPM outfit.

However, both drivers ranked in the top ten in opening practice – Hinchcliffe was sixth while Wickens was tenth – and things only got better in qualifying, with Hinchcliffe taking fifth and Wickens right behind him in sixth.

In all, it was a solid start to the weekend for a team that has notoriously struggled on short ovals.

“A huge credit to the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports guys, because we did not have a great test here back in February,” Hinchcliffe explained after qualifying. “Obviously, things have changed a lot conditions-wise, but we went back, had a big think about it, a big look inside ourselves. I just can’t thank those guys and gal (engineer Leena Gade) enough for getting us good cars and getting us both up there – it’s awesome.”

Teammate Wickens even led qualifying briefly after his run, and revealed that he played it safe, meaning there may be more speed in the tank.

Robert Wickens qualified an impressive sixth on his return to oval racing at ISM Raceway. Photo: IndyCar

“I had my moment of fame there for a couple of moments (sitting in P1), but I’m pretty happy with the job that we did. The Lucas Oil car was good… it was my first oval qualifying. I was a little too safe on the first lap, especially when that kind of sets the mood for the whole run. I feel pretty good (on the oval). To be honest, that qualifying was the best I’ve felt so far, so I just wish I could give it another go,” he revealed.

Both drivers will look to give SPM their best short oval result since Iowa Speedway in 2016, where the aforementioned Mikhail Aleshin finished fifth.

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Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”