J.R. Hildebrand during the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series season has been unable to shake the tag of being an oval track specialist.
While the 2011 Indianapolis 500 runner-up has finished no better than 11th on a road course to date, the Californian has done damage to the competition on the short ovals. The first major score came at Phoenix International Raceway in April where he chased Team Penske’s Simon Pagenaud and Will Power to the finish to place third. On Sunday, Hildebrand would exceed that performance with a runner-up showing at the Iowa Corn 300.
Earlier this weekend at Iowa Speedway, the returns were not as pleasant. A practice crash on Saturday cost him valuable track time, but the Ed Carpenter Racing pilot absorbed the blow with style in time trials, placing the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet on the outside of the front row for Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300.
After dropping back early, the 29-year old surged late in the first fuel stint, eventually taking the lead from pole winner Helio Castroneves on Lap 97. While maintaining position in the top-five for most of the distance, the major issue for the ECR team on Sunday was pit stops. During three of the four rounds of crew action, Hildebrand lost positions.
“The (ECR) guys did a good job today, (today) became more about track position than (Iowa) usually is,” said Hildebrand after the race on the IndyCar Radio Network. “We got pushed back to about fifth or sixth position (at the halfway point), it was really tough to run on the bottom (line).”
However, it would be the final round of stops under the green flag, that would allow the Californian a shot to earn his first IndyCar win. Electing to gamble by pitting earlier than others, Hildebrand was able to run several quick laps on new tires. The result of the successful bet vaulted the No. 21 Chevrolet into contention; however, the early call-in came with a price. With the new tire advantage shifting late to those in pursuit, Hildebrand succumbed to eventual race winner Castroneves with 35 laps to go. Unable to keep pace, the ECR chauffeur settled for second.
“We got a couple of good restarts and (my team) made a great call to pit early, go out and really hustle to get the lead,” explained Hildebrand. “At that point, it was all about holding everyone off as long as we could. If we had a couple more laps left (I may not have finished second).”
With the IndyCar fleet headed north to the streets of Toronto, Canada next weekend, Hildebrand and the Ed Carpenter Racing figure to revert to their usual placing in mid-pack. However, the No. 21 entry could rejoin victory contention in August as the circuit heads to Pocono Raceway, followed by Gateway Motorsports Park the week after.
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