After his altercation and penalty-filled race at Road America, IndyCar's James Hinchcliffe seeks a fresh start in Iowa.
NEWTON, Iowa — Guys: Hinch here, writing to you from deep inside Hawkeye country. I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t it a bit early for a county fair crawl? Yes, it is! But as ever, I’m traveling for Verizon IndyCar Series business. This Sunday we’ll attempt our fourth oval race of the season, the Iowa Corn 300. You can catch it at 5 p.m. Eastern on NBCSN. Or, if you’re in the Des Moines area or planning on passing through, you could join us in the flesh. You won’t be disappointed.
Certainly all of us on the Schmidt Peterson No. 5 Arrow car will be doing our best to make it a memorable experience. You might say we’re a little extra eager to put on a good show after our last start at Road America. The venue was great. The race? Not so much.
It all went south in qualifying, where we got tied up in an unfortunate incident I had with Andretti Herta Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. We were having a problem with the car, but trying to make do. In the process, a couple of cars—Rossi’s being one of them—caught up to me, and it slowed down their fastest laps. The thing is, I was on my fastest lap at the time and pushing as hard as I could through the issues we were having. Yet, I was penalized anyway for going too slow.
Even though the stewards admitted fault after the fact, because they hadn’t gotten all the information or taken the time to speak to either one of the drivers involved, I was told there was no precedent for undoing that call. So I had to start last in the field, in 22nd position. The penalty itself was disappointing. The lack of accountability after admitting fault, however, was far more so. But that’s the way of the world I suppose.
If there’s an upshot, it’s that, despite the situation, I at least was able to keep the peace with Rossi—who wound up settling in six places ahead of me on the grid, in 16th position. Ours was a much different approach to conflict resolution than what you saw at last weekend’s NASCAR truck race, which ended with two drivers fighting each other over a wreck—if you can even call that thing a fight. It was more like a hugging match. Child’s play.
As I’ve said in this space before, I’m a non-confrontational person. If I decide to fight someone it’s going to be for a good reason, and not for something as silly as an on-track altercation. The way Rossi and I handled it, by talking it out intellectually, is how men handle it. How those guys handled it is how boys handle it. I’m quite happy with the way we went about it. Even if we didn’t make SportsCenter that night, I think we probably both slept better with ourselves than those other two.
Anyway, one of the big issues with starting in the back at Road America is the lap and the pit lane is so long that it really makes fuel windows very narrow—which almost throws alternate strategies out the window. At a different race track in a similar situation, no question we’d roll the dice on an alternate strategy and hope for a lucky yellow. At Road America, it’s a much bigger risk. Given our position, we had no choice but to take it.
So we pitted early in that first stint to set up a four-stop strategy. For a while there, I thought the gamble might pay off. The car was so quick, I think we had the third-fastest race lap. Steadily, we climbed from outside the top 20 into the top 15. We had some great wheel to wheel battles—a couple with Rossi, even. Unfortunately, the one yellow that we got did not fall at the most opportune time. And thus we were resigned to a 14th place finish.
Overall, the effort dropped us down to 13th in the driver standings—a ways behind Team Penske, which holds the inside track on the IndyCar championship. As an organization, they’ve won six out of nine races already this season. Three-quarters of their drivers—Simon Pagenaud, Hélio Castroneves and Will Power—rank in the top three in the points standings. At this same point last season, there was much more diversity among race winners.
But who could expect that trend to hold? IndyCar races have so many variables. That’s what makes them tough to win. When you have a set up like they do at Penske where they have four great drivers (the guys I just mentioned plus Juan Pablo Montoya), you can afford to take some chances on strategy.
Because the team, the drivers, the cars, and everybody are so good, there’s a good chance they’ll finish at or near the front of any strategy they employ. They rarely keep all four guys on the same strategy. Even if they’re all running up front, they’ll put one guy on a bit more of a risk. That way an unlucky yellow for their leaders becomes lucky for the guy riding the most risk. They definitely have their bases covered.
And yet, there’s still a lot of season left. This is still an incredibly competitive series. We’ll prove it yet again this Sunday at Iowa, maybe the most physical oval we go to. In particular the high banks on both ends of the track, which is just 7/8ths of a mile around, definitely make for a challenging day. Also: mid-July in the Midwest is definitely not the coolest or driest time of year.
That said, it’s a great little track because it offers two very distinct racing lines. At our last short track oval race in Phoenix, it was a little bit harder to get around side by side. At Iowa, it won’t be a problem. That’s why us drivers like coming here so much. It’s almost like racing on a super speedway.
If we can take care of our tires as well as we were doing in Texas (before the race got postponed by rain), I like our chances. Granted, we’re far from the only team feeling the Penske pinch, or the most motivated to beat them. But make no mistake, we are very hungry for a race win. To get that, we know it’s going to take perfect execution from everyone on the team—not least myself. With luck, this will be the weekend that the famine ends and the feast begins.
James Hinchcliffe is a veteran IndyCar driver and your new best friend. You just don’t know it yet. Check out his website, Hinchtown.com or follow him on Twitter @hinchtown. There could be some Hinchtown Hammerdown in it for you.