Hinchcliffe closing in on rare Canadian racing feat

James Hinchcliffe comes around turn 13 during the main race at the 2011 Edmonton Indy at City...

James Hinchcliffe comes around turn 13 during the main race at the 2011 Edmonton Indy at City Centre Airport in Edmonton, Alta., July 24, 2011. (CODIE McLACHLAN/QMI Agency)

DEAN McNULTY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 1:08 AM ET

TORONTO - It has been — given that a lack of sponsorship cost him one whole race in the IZOD IndyCar Series — a remarkable season for Canada’s James Hinchcliffe.

Since Sprott Asset Management came aboard after St. Petersberg, Hinchcliffe has battled hard to become the first Canadian to win rookie of the year honours since Jacques Villeneuve did it in 1994 in North America’s top open wheel loop.

Now with one race left on the 2011 calendar — Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — the result is in the 25-year-old Oakville native’s hands.

Right now Hinchcliffe leads American JR Hildebrand by six points, 302 to 296.

“My approach is really the same as any other weekend,” Hinchcliffe said this week. “We are going out to do the best job we can.”

He said that he doesn’t want to overthink the task at hand.

“If you start thinking too much about where you have to finish or whatever, it can really distract you from doing your job,” Hinchcliffe said. “We will give the whole weekend our best effort and see where we fall.

“I’m just really grateful to even have a shot at it going into the last race after having missed the first race. It’s a testament to how strong this team is and what we were able to get done.”

He still has a chance to crack the top 10 overall in the championship as he is just 12 points back of Danica Patrick, who holds down 10th spot.

TEAM CHOKE

The question can now be legitimately asked: Is Kyle Busch and the No. 18 Toyota team choking under the pressure of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship?

In four of the past five seasons, Busch has gone into the 10-race Chase among the favourites to dethrone five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

But in each of those seasons Busch has been underwhelming, finishing 8th, 10th, 5th and 10th respectively.

He came into the 2011 Chase as the points leader with four trips to Victory Lane for Joe Gibbs Racing yet in the first four of the races he has only a 22nd-, 11th-, 6th- and 11th-place results.

Heading into Saturday’s Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway Busch has dropped all the way back to 8th behind points leader Carl Edwards.

“When you run fifth to 10th all day at Chicago, you know you’re running well,” Busch said this week. “But finishing 22nd, that hurt. That stung a little bit. Certainly, we’ve not been as high as we want to be yet, but that’s not indicative of how we’ve run, I don’t think.”

RANGER RIDES AGAIN

To just about nobody’s surprise, Andrew Ranger will replace J.R. Fitzpatrick in the Go Canada Racing No. 67 NASCAR Nationwide Series Ford Mustang next month in the Ford 300 at Homestead Miami Speedway.

The 23-year-old Fitzpatrick and team owner Steve Meehan parted ways after the NAPA 200 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal in August.

Meehan’s stated goal when he launched the team at the start of the 2011 season was to use it to promote young Canadian talent in NASCAR and his first signing was Fitzpatrick.

But even before Fitzpatrick decided to leave the team, Ranger, 24, was brought in to race the car at New Hampshire in July.

“I’m very excited to get back behind the wheel of the No. 67 car,” Ranger said in a team release. “This will be my first race at Homestead.”

Ranger, a two-time NASCAR Canadian Tire Series champion, has spent most of the 2011 season racing in the K&N Pro Series, ARCA, as well as both the NASCAR Nationwide and Sprint Cup Series.

FINISH LINES

The fate of the NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve is expected to be settled this week with the release of the 2012 NNS schedule. Most recent rumour has the France family-controlled International Speedway Corporation handing the promotion of the race over to Montreal’s Octane Group. In its first four seasons the race was co-promoted by ISC and Octane ... The Charlotte Observer reported Tuesday that discount retailer Dollar General will be the primary sponsor of ther No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota of Joey Logano in 2012 with long-time backer Home Depot moving to a part-time role.

DEAN’S RANT

There are only two drivers who are in contention for the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series championship — Dario Franchitti and Will Power.

They have battled back and forth all season, trading places at the top of the standings and on a few occasions — particularly at the Honda Indy Toronto — nearly trading blows in their quest to be the best in North American open wheel racing.

They have been THE story all season.

So why have the bright lights of IndyCar — with only Sunday’s IndyCar World Championship at Las Vegas Motor Speedway left to decide everything — thrown a moving chicane into the works.

That would be the decision to expand the grid to a season-high 34 cars when the green flag drops at LVMS.

On a 1.5-mile oval it is bad enough to have the regular field of 26 cars in pack formation going flat out, but to add a bunch of also-rans — and yes, I include Indy 500 winner Dan Wheldon in that group — just ups the opportunity that Franchitti or Power could lose the championship because one of these back markers pulls a bonehead move as Ana Beatriz did at Kentucky to Power on pit lane.

TONY’S A MAN OF HIS WORD

Among all his many other qualities, Tony Stewart is a man of his word.

After his win in the first Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship at Chicagoland, Stewart said that he was fed up with being held up by slower traffic on the race track and he wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Well on Sunday at Kansas Speedway, Stewart acted on his promise by moving Jeff Gordon down the track to make a pass.

“Stewart took me three-wide, all the way down to the apron, and we were on old tires and that just ruined our day right there,” Gordon said. “He did what he had to do.”

Just like he said he would.

THE NAME GAME

What’s in a name?

Well for the Formula One Renault Lotus team, it was confusing for most of the past two-plus seasons.

After the race-fixing controversy in 2009 when Renault driver Nelson Piquet Jr. admitted that team boss Flavio Briatore ordered him to deliberately crash at Singapore to help teammate Fernando Alonso claim the world championship, Renault sold the team to Genii Capital.

Genii teamed up with Group Lotus with a new chassis but held on to a deal with Renault to supply engines.

So the team ended up being re-branded as Lotus Renault GP.

It was a compromise that satisfied neither British sport car manufacturer Lotus or French car-builder Renault.

But this week the two came to an agreement that would have the team race under the Group Lotus monicker in 2012.

All it needs is F-1 approval.

Renault Sport’s managing director Jean-Francois Caubet said the new name will not alter the commitment his company has to the team.

“We sold the team two years ago, and the strategy was not to cut the whole relationship with the team because, when you are a big car maker, you cannot stop like that,” Caubet told AUTOSPORT magazine.

It also won’t interfere with Renault’s hugely successful contract to supply engines for world champion Red Bull Racing. Caubet said that, in fact, the competition would be good for both teams.

“We will provide engines (for Group Lotus) and we will continue to push because we need a second team strong to push Red Bull,” he said. “We don’t want to leave Red Bull alone, and when you have two good teams you can compare all the time.”


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