With a pair of finishes outside the top-10 to start the season, including a broken right hand from the crash at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, J.R. Hildebrand’s season needed a boost.
After being forced to sit out Barber Motorsports Park, the Ed Carpenter Racing driver rebounded at Phoenix, posting a runner-up despite continuing to battle the injury. The finish was not a surprise for Hildebrand, recalling the one-two speeds posted in testing by himself and teammate Ed Carpenter.
“The car was bitching,” he said. “I mean, I think at the end of the race we had obviously one of the top three, but I think we might have had the best car on the track. It feels good to just have that in it, you know? (We) know that we’ve got that in us for the next couple of races. It’s a strong result heading into May.”
The finish allowed Hildebrand to build some confidence, which he admits was lacking following the pair of street courses to begin 2017.
“The first couple of races have been a little bit challenging, just getting things dialed in,” he said. “The field is so stacked and competitive here in the IndyCar Series these days; it’s difficult to come away with consistent, good results. This is somewhere we looked at on the schedule and knew we would have a fighting chance at it.
“I think coming away with a good weekend, executing at a high level, getting through everything, definitely builds some confidence going into the month of May, where we’ll hope to do that again.”
The boost in morale is crucial, as he is working with a new engineer this season – Justin Taylor, who enters the Verizon IndyCar Series with a background in sports cars and road courses.
“Justin’s been awesome, man,” Hildebrand said. “To come into this whole thing and not know the car, we’re at a whole bunch of tracks that he’s not seen. Certainly the oval aspect of it, it’s a lot to get used to. It’s obviously my first time back in the car full-time with aero kits and all this kind of stuff. We’re all learning a little bit still as we go along.
“It feels great for me and for I think on behalf of him and the team and some of the new guys that we’ve got just to be able to pull it out here. We knew we had speed here. It’s different to execute in the race in a way that you can stick it on the podium. I think it’s the start of good things to come for us. Hopefully, we can get on a little bit of a roll heading into the thick of the season.”
Kicking off the month of May with the Grand Prix of Indianapolis, any momentum is a benefit for Hildebrand as his previous two appearances have both ended in finishes outside of the top-20.
The focus for the team could be towards shining in the Indianapolis 500 later in the month, where they have had past success. On top of Carpenter’s pair of poles, Hildebrand has finished in the top-10 in his previous three attempts for ECR and had a runner-up in 2011 with Panther Racing.
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