A pessimist would say that Canada’s James Hinchcliffe’s rookie IZOD IndyCar season with Newman Haas Racing hasn’t lived up to expectations.
An optimist, on the other hand, would point out that the 24-year-old native of Oakville is only three points behind Panther Racing’s JR Hildebrand for the Sunoco rookie-of-the-year honours in North America’s top open-wheel loop with four races left on the schedule, starting Sunday at the Baltimore Grand Prix.
And Hinchcliffe spotted Hildebrand a whole race by missing the 2011 IndyCar opener at St. Petersburg, Fla., because of a lack of sponsorship dollars.
But since Toronto investment firm Sprott answered his call, Hinchcliffe has been the best rookie in the series.
All he needs is to finish ahead of Hildebrand Sunday in Baltimore and he will be on top of the rookie race.
Hildebrand is feeling the heat. This week Panther brought in Michael Cannon, ex-engineer of Tony Kanaan at KV Racing Technology, to boost the rookie’s chances of beating back the young Canadian.
Certainly the temporary street course in Baltimore plays to Hinchcliffe’s strengths, even though he admits the new circuit offers up a host of challenges.
“I know that it’s a street circuit and I know that it’s in Baltimore. That’s about it,” Hinchcliffe said of the Inner Harbour 3.4-kilometre track.
“The team has done some research and simulations obviously, so I have taken what I can from that. The layout looks pretty cool; a good mix of slow and fast corners. We drive over some train tracks, which should be interesting.”
Hinchcliffe’s street-course record — a pair of Top 10 finishes at Long Beach and Sao Paulo — should be better but for being taken out at Toronto and Edmonton by other drivers’ mistakes.
Still, he is confident of his abilities on the streets.
“We have been pretty competitive on street courses this year,” Hinchcliffe said.
“Long Beach was good; Brazil was decent; Toronto was good.
“So I am hoping that this track will suit Newman/Haas Racing’s setup. One of the strengths of this team is improving over a weekend, so even if the cars don’t roll off perfect — which is nearly impossible given that it’s a new track — we know we can work on the car and make it competitive by Sunday when it counts.”
He said that he is not going into the final four races thinking about beating Hildebrand.
He just wants to finish the season on a winning note.
“Honestly, I can’t believe there are only four races left,” Hinchcliffe said.
“I am trying not to think about it. I have no real goals or expectations at this point.
“I just want to head to every weekend and focus on that weekend and getting the best out of what we have. I am sure that some of the remaining races we will be more competitive than others, but as long as we maximize what we bring to the track then I can sleep well on Sunday nights.”
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