Career day for Canadian Hinchcliffe

James Hinchcliffe matched his best IndyCar finish Sunday, bringing home the No. 27 GoDaddy.com...

James Hinchcliffe matched his best IndyCar finish Sunday, bringing home the No. 27 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet in fourth place in St. Petersburgh. (Getty Images/AFP)

Dean McNulty, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:03 PM ET

ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. - In the days leading up to the IZOD IndyCar Series season opener at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg James Hinchcliffe played it light.

It was a deliberate ploy.

After all, here he was just a year removed from being the new kid on the IndyCar block and he was about to take over the highest profile ride in the series — the GoDaddy.com Andretti Autosport machine in which Danica Patrick had made her mark before moving to NASCAR at the end of the 2011 season.

It also was the seat that had been promised to two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, who had signed the contract with team owner Michael Andretti the day before his tragic death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October. So there was lots of pressure on the 25-year-old Canadian to succeed.

And on Sunday he did just that, bringing home the No. 27 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet in fourth place — matching his career best IndyCar finish.

But in the days before Sunday afternoon Hinchcliffe sought to deflect the pressure that was on him and the team with self deprecating humour.

For instance on Friday as Hinchcliffe roamed through the paddock in what had been and still is Patrick’s familiar green and black driver’s suit a fan yelled: “Hey, Manica.”

It was a nickname he happily adopted for the remainder of the three-day event.

So when Hinchcliffe was introduced in the pre-race ceremonies Sunday he walked onto the stage dolled out in a Danica-like black wig.

It broke the place up.

Once inside the cockpit of the bright green Andretti Chevrolet as the command was given to start the engines, however, Hinchcliffe was deadly serious.

Going through his mind was that he was about to be in the biggest spotlight of his young racing life and it struck him how much he still had to learn.

“This is just my second year and I still have a lot to learn,” he said.

Hinchcliffe said he concentrated on getting through the first turn — notorious for collecting wrecked race cars.

“Once I got through without a mishap I just wanted to hold my position as best I could,” he said.

He was passed in Turn 3 by Scott Dixon, a position Hinchcliffe would retake shortly afterwards.

With the butterflies finally gone he settled in to race, his only concern was that the new Chevrolet engine would perform has it had in preseason testing.

He needn’t have worried.

“The car ran faultlessly all day long,” he said. “This was the first time we have run these engines for the whole race distance so you never know what quite to expect but the preparations that the Chevy guys did were awesome; the same with the guys in the Andretti crew.”

He admitted there were moments during the race when he was close to being out of control but managed to reign the car back.

“On a few of the restarts I was on the outside row and that was a little hairy,” Hinchcliffe said. “But really those were our only oops moments.”

He said that the whole day was a learning curve for him.

“I think we learned a lot ... to come through 100 laps incident free,” Hinchcliffe said.

If there was a glitch in what otherwise was near perfect day it was that he wasn’t sure he would have enough gas to keep fifth place finisher Ryan Briscoe behind him.

“I knew Brisco was catching me at the end but I was able to manage that gap,” he said. “I knew how many laps were left and the numbers I had too hit.”

The team decision to come to pit lane only twice for fuel in the late stages of the race while his closest competitors come in three times was a factor in maintaining his top five finish.

“The biggest thing was that last stint with us doing two stops and the guys behind us doing three stops,” Hinchcliffe said. “I really had to manage the tires and the fuel.

“I think the car ran out of fuel just as I was pulling into my pit.”

He said that only a win would have made Sunday a better way to start the season. Now he is looking forward to the next race at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama next week.

Maybe, he said, his inaugural IndyCar win will come there.

“We keep knocking on the door,” Hinchcliffe said. “But starting out the season by matching my best finish in IndyCar I think that has to be considered a strong starting point.”

Yes, all in all a pretty good start for the Oakville, Ont., native.

“I feel really good,” he said as he downed a bottle of water at his pit stall in the late afternoon stifling heat. “Obviously coming in to a great team that has a whole lot of visibility you want to and you are expected to perform.

“We did a good job as a team to get on the second row to start the race. And now with the team strategy in place we were able to bring it back in fourth.”


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