For the second Verizon IndyCar Series race in a row, Schmidt Peterson Motorsports narrowly missed out on a victory.
Both Robert Wickens and James Hinchcliffe led laps and were in position to battle for the win in the Desert Diamond West Casino Phoenix Grand Prix. A cycle of green flag pit stops that began on Lap 113 saw both Hinchcliffe and Wickens pit early – the cycle ran until Lap 128, when Graham Rahal was the last to pit – and the fresh tires allowed them to cycle into first and second, with Hinchcliffe leading the way.
“Hinch” ended up drifting high on the exit of Turn 2 on Lap 149 while battling with the lapped car of Gabby Chaves, which allowed Wickens through into the lead, but the pit strategy that got them up front started to turn against them on the subsequent round of stops.
While both pitted early in that cycle – Hinchcliffe on Lap 177 and Wickens one lap later – Chip Ganassi Racing’s Ed Jones and Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden pitted earlier, on lap 176, and a pair of fast stops combined with fresh tires vaulted both of them ahead of the SPM duo.
When Jones crashed in Turns 3 and 4 on Lap 230, several drivers, including Newgarden, chose to pit for fresh tires while Wickens and Hinchcliffe stayed out.
They led the way when racing resumed with seven laps to go, but Newgarden was immediately on the move, taking the outside line in Turn 1 to go from fourth, where he restarted after his stop, to second behind Wickens.
Though Wickens valiantly tried keeping Newgarden at bay, the fresh tires proved too much and Newgarden made a bold outside pass entering Turn 1 with four laps remaining.
Wickens was able to hang on for second, ahead of Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, who also chose to stay out under the final caution, while Hinchcliffe faded to sixth in the final laps.
Despite missing out on victory, Wickens remained very upbeat about his performance, noting that his goal entering the weekend was simply to finish the race, his first event on an oval.
“My goal coming into this was to finish every lap. Even on that last restart, leading, knowing there is only the three of us that stayed out, my thought process didn’t really change,” Wickens said in the post-race press conference. “Even if I finished fifth, I would have been kind of, well, a little bit disappointed but still happy that I got even a top five on my first oval race.”
Wickens also deferred credit to teammate Hinchcliffe and the Schmidt Peterson team for taking on a lot of the grunt work as he adapts to IndyCar racing, and oval racing in particular.
“They’re carrying me,” he said of Hinchcliffe and the SPM team. “It goes from my teammate (Hinchcliffe), both car crews, the 5 and 6, are doing such a strong job. The camera team is phenomenal. James is taking the brunt of the work for us because he’s the one basically setting up the car because he has a lot more oval experience than me. I’m kind of doing the basic stuff, but he’s taking the job list of the tough things.”
Teammate Hinchcliffe defended the decision to stay out, even though it didn’t net them a victory.
“It’s tough to defend when a guy on new tires won the race, but at the same, put in the same position again, I think we would make the same decision. You don’t have a crystal ball, you can’t look into the future,” he told NBCSN’s Kevin Lee.
Hinchcliffe added, “The thing that threw us off was that so many guys (pitted). We figured it would be about ten laps (left) by the time the accident was cleaned up. If we were at a two-lane race track, if we were at (Iowa Speedway or Texas Motor Speedway), no question. But, given the nature of this place, I thought we might have a chance to hang on to a couple more, but obviously (Team Penske) made the right call, and congrats to Josef.”
Both drivers sit in the Top 10 in the championship two races into the 2018 IndyCar Season, with Hinchcliffe sixth on 61 points and Wickens eighth on 57 points.