SONOMA, Calif.—Hey everyone. Hinch here, writing to you from wine country. You might say it’s a fine place for a race. This Sunday’s GoPro Grand Prix of Sonoma, a road course feature that runs 85 laps and is worth double the points, will mark the end of the road for the Verizon IndyCar Series season. For those of you unable to attend in person, fear not! You can catch all the action on NBCSN, starting at 6:30 p.m. Eastern. You don’t want to miss it.
For the 11th straight year, we’ll be crowning a champion after the checkered flags fly. It’ll either be my old Schmidt Peterson teammate, Simon Pagenaud (now of Team Penske), who has occupied the top spot on the points table since the second race of the season at Phoenix; or Will Power, my old Celebrity Family Feud teammate (and also of Team Penske), who claimed his first career series crown two years ago. Only 43 points separate them; that’s a slimmer margin than the one that Juan Pablo Montoya had on Scott Dixon before Scotty pulled off a dramatic upset. It could be easily overcome in Sunday’s race, where a driver can score a maximum of 104 points. Many things would have to go right for Simon or Will to hit the jackpot—and then they’ll have to reckon with me playing the spoiler.
Certainly, that’s not the role all of us on the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda envisioned ourselves in when the season began. But, alas, it’s the role we are consigned to after our season-long qualifying struggles and, more recently, a pair of super rough outings at the track. There was our near-win at Texas, which was made even more disappointing by a post-race inspection points penalty. Then two weeks later, while qualifying for the Watkins Glen race, we were ticketed again for interference and shuffled deep into the grid, in the 13th starting position. This was after the guys had turned a wobbly No. 5 machine into a top-three car. I still haven’t entirely been explained how we merited that one. (All I did was spin out.) I haven’t talked to a single person in the paddock that agrees with the penalty either. But such is the nature of the beast.
Thirteenth is not the position you want to be in at a track like Watkins Glen, where passing comes at a premium. But true to form of my team of late, we made the best out of a bad situation and eventually found our way up to the sharp end of the grid. The car was great, the guys in the pits were quick, and I got by a bunch of people on the track. When the last yellow flag waved with 22 laps to go, we had a strategy call to make. We bet that we could make it to the end without having to service the car again. Incidentally, it’s the same strategy call that helped Scotty win a race he absolutely dominated. It’s also the same strategy that helped the second-place driver. For a while there, it looked like that guy was going to be me.
Throughout that stint, I was making better fuel numbers than I was being asked. We had a big gap on my buddy Josef Newgarden. But with one lap to go, the collector alarm—or the fuel indicator, basically—kicked on at the exact moment my radio completely cut out. In other words, I was flying blind just as my team realized that we were seriously low on fuel. Still, I thought I could coast to the finish; sometimes, when that warning kicks on, there’s a little bit of a margin for error. Depending on the racetrack, you can still make another lap before coming in to pit.
Unfortunately, Watkins is a very long lap. Either a sensor was calibrated wrong (and giving us phony fuel numbers as a result), or we didn’t quite get an absolutely full, full, full tank on our last stop. Even now it’s still a mystery. What we do know is there wasn’t enough left in the tank for me to make it through the race’s final two corners. And so I sunk, from a sure-fire finish in second place down, down, down to 18th. That was a tough pill to swallow because, well, we had overcome so much: the early points penalty, an unlucky yellow flag. We had made moves on the track. Really, from my seat, it was one of the best races I’ve ever driven. What’s more, our team called it exactly right. And then one little unfortunate situation robs us of a result that, quite frankly, would’ve felt like a win. Ugh.
If there was a saving grace, it was that my Dancing with the Stars commitment didn’t leave me much time to dwell on things. After the race it was straight to New York City for a few days of rehearsals with my dance partner Sharna Burgess in anticipation of a Good Morning America appearance with the entire cast. From there, it was off to Los Angeles. Relocating, essentially. I arrived with two big suitcases, enough to basically move out here for anywhere from two weeks to three months depending on how things go.
Getting out there and going through all the steps to put the show on for the first time was an interesting experience. It’s definitely hectic for the folks behind the scenes, just getting the first show done. The show is live, which is always a little extra stressful. The cast is fresh. And then on top of that, we’re all learning a craft that we mostly know nothing about.
In my case, dancing isn’t my main thing. It’s not my secondary thing. It's not my tertiary thing. It’s not even a thing—not even on the list of things. It’s incredibly challenging, but I have a tremendous coach and teacher in Sharna, who has somehow managed to take a guy that sits for a living and make him relatively light on his feet. The real struggle for me is the information overload. You’re learning techniques and basics ... and moves ... and choreography. It’s an extremely strenuous exercise, and yet one I think athletes like myself and Ryan Lochte (the Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer) and Laurie Hernandez (the Olympic gold-medal winning gymnast) are hardwired to thrive in. We’re used to hard work, the long hours, the repetitive tasks. (If I can do 300 laps around Iowa, I can do repetition.)
No, dancing isn’t our thing, but the competitiveness takes over. It forces you to want to be better and then, when show time comes, to push through the stage fright—which was off the charts for me because dancing in front of millions of people is not something I’m used to doing. Again, dancing, period, just isn’t something I do. But in the end, I just applied some of the same mental tricks I do before a big race to keep in the right headspace. Overall, I think it worked out pretty well.
Keeping cool will be the name of the game again this weekend at Sonoma. The goal is always to go out and win. But after recent events—as I see it, we’ve come in second the last two weeks—there will be a much greater sense of urgency. However the points play out is how they play out. As long as we have a fast car and a fierce team spirit, there’s no reason why we can’t end the season on a high note and clink a glass or 20 in celebration.