A Second Chance For A Good Guy
With a couple of distractions in the past week or so, I’ve failed to comment on what I consider to be one of the true feel-good stories of the Verizon IndyCar Series offseason. Please excuse my being just a little late to the party on this.
Josef Newgarden moving to Team Penske was a big story, but we knew he was going somewhere. He was either going to go with Penske or Chip Ganassi Racing. My personal preference was for him to go to Team Penske, so I was very happy about that. The bad part of that was that it left a huge vacancy at Ed Carpenter Racing (ECR).
ECR is technically a two-car team, but the No.21 is the only one that competes for the championship. The No.20 is reserved for Ed to run on ovals and a driver-to-be-named to run the non-ovals. That means the No.21 is the flag-bearer for ECR. They needed to get it right when they replaced Josef Newgarden. In my opinion, they did when they named JR Hildebrand to the No.21 for 2017.
Unfortunately, you can’t mention JR Hildebrand without also mentioning his infamous crash in the 2011 Indianapolis 500; in which he crashed while leading as a rookie coming out of Turn Four on the final lap, and handing what appeared to be his certain victory to Dan Wheldon. Some of Hildebrand’s supporters will take issue that I brought up. They will say that he should be judged on his body of work and his career should not be defined by one moment he would love to forget.
To stick one’s head in the sand and pretend that never happened would be like never acknowledging the 108 years of futility that preceded the Chicago Cubs’ World Series championship a couple of weeks ago. It’s just part of the story. Much like the Cubs have finally cleaned the slate, JR Hildebrand has the same opportunity in front of him at ECR.
To be honest, now that we are a few years removed from that gaffe in the Indianapolis 500 – that’s not the first thing I think of when I think of JR Hildebrand. Instead, I think of the raw deal he got a couple of years later when Panther Racing’s car owner John Barnes unceremoniously kicked him to the curb after Hildebrand threw away a tenth-place starting position in the 2013 Indianapolis 500 by crashing on his own on Lap 4. Was it a mistake on Hildebrand’s part? Definitely. Did he deserved to be cut loose by Barnes two days later? Absolutely not.
Although Hildebrand sat on the IndyCar sidelines with only sporadic work for the three and a half seasons that ensued, I consider it karma that JR Hildebrand will run fulltime in 2017, while John Barnes will be nowhere to be seen and is nothing more than a bad memory. I did spot Barnes in one of the Schmidt-Peterson pits at Barber last spring and was afraid he was striking some type of deal to come back in some ownership capacity. Fortunately, nothing materialized from that and the series will be free of Mr. Barnes.
If you’ll recall, Barnes sued Bobby Rahal, IndyCar and the National Guard. Barnes tried to get $17 million in National Guard sponsorship dollars for his one-car team, while Bobby Rahal only asked for $12 million when he was running a two-car team. Oddly enough, the National Guard chose to move the sponsorship from Barnes to Rahal in 2014. The suit never made it to the courts and John Barnes never made it to the grid again. Good riddance.
Hildebrand’s second chance took longer to come than some. Then again, some drivers never get a second chance. If you heard Hildebrand last week on Trackside, you heard him explain how this was by design. Not to disparage most IndyCar drivers, but Hildebrand is one of the few drivers in the paddock with a college degree – coincidentally, Ed Carpenter is another one of the few with a degree.
After Hildebrand was fired by Barnes, he saw few good opportunities available. He admitted that he drove himself crazy showing up at the track every week with helmet in hand, pursuing opportunities that simply weren’t there. Instead, he kept one eye on the series, while pursuing and creating business interests outside of racing. He snagged an opportunity with ECR driving a second car in the Indianapolis 500. He made the most of it, finishing tenth. He has returned with ECR/CFH Racing each year since. In 2015 he finished eighth and this past year he finished sixth.
Hildebrand leveraged those results and the relationship he built with the team into getting the fulltime gig for 2017. He acknowledged he realized that Newgarden would more than likely be stepping out of that cockpit and that he would at least be considered for the seat once Newgarden moved on. We don’t know how seriously Juan Montoya was considered, but I never felt like Montoya was a good fit at ECR. I just had a gut feeling all along that Hildebrand would be getting the ride in the No.21. When Montoya announced he was staying at Penske in a very limited capacity, I felt like Hildebrand was the guy. For once, I was right.
Critics will say that Hildebrand is an oval specialist in a series that is predominantly run on non-ovals. While he had a couple of fifth place finishes with Panther at Long Beach, his best results with Panther were on ovals. But I think that is more of an indictment on Panther than Hildebrand. John Barnes was a holdover from the IRL days when the series ran all ovals. He had disdain for road and street courses. Consequently, he and his team focused their efforts and resources on performing well on ovals, and the Indianapolis 500 in particular.
Here’s a trivia question for you…Since the Verizon IndyCar Series began racing on road and street courses in 2005, seventeen different drivers have piloted cars for Panther Racing. Only one of them produced podium finishes on non-ovals. Who was the driver, when and where were the races? Give up? The answer is in the next paragraph.
The point is, Panther never focused on non-ovals. A look at their non-oval results clearly bears that out. So what is the answer? Vitor Meira. In 2006, he produced a second place finish at St. Petersburg and a third place finish later that year at Sonoma. None of the other sixteen drivers even got a sniff at a podium on a non-oval in all that time at Panther.
Do you need more evidence that JR Hildebrand is more than competent on road and street courses? Check out the 2006 US F2000 season. Hildebrand won the championship by winning twelve out of fourteen races that season. The two he didn’t win? He finished second in one and thirteenth in another. That might explain why he only stayed one season in that series. His one year in Atlantics, he finished seventh. In 2008, Hildebrand began a two-year run in Indy Lights. His first year, he finished fifth. His second year in 2009 – Hildebrand won the championship. All three of these ladder series were predominantly run on non-ovals, yet JR Hildebrand won two championships and two other seasons when he finished no lower than seventh.
The other night, Hildebrand said he has had a lot of time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong in his two-plus seasons with John Barnes and Panther. In all honesty, not a whole lot went right. He finished fourteenth inn 2011 and eleventh in 2012. In his first year, there was only one Top-Ten finish on a non-oval – an eighth at Toronto. His second and last full year in 2012 was better on the non-ovals. In fact, he did better on the non-ovals than the ovals. Hildebrand scored five Top-Ten finishes on non-ovals, while earning only one Top-Ten on ovals – a fifth-place finish at Texas.
But it was his one bobble at Indianapolis in 2013 that incurred the wrath of Barnes. Hildebrand was sent packing, with no idea who might replace him. Barnes ultimately ran three other drivers in the car. The best non-oval finish after Hildebrand’s firing was by Oriol Servia, who finished seventh in one of the Houston races. As good as that was, it didn’t surpass the fifth that Hildebrand earned for the second straight year at Long Beach. When Servia finished nineteenth at Fontana at the end of the season; we didn’t know it at the time but it was the last time a Panther Racing car ever made it to the grid of an IndyCar race.
JR Hildebrand was not the biggest domino to fall in the silly season. He was not the first nor will he be the last. There are fairly substantiated but not officially confirmed reports that Conor Daly has landed at Foyt to unofficially partner with Carlos Muñoz, Ed Jones has reportedly landed the second car at Dale Coyne. There is even a report that Rahal Letterman Lanigan is trying to put together a second program for Servia.
But none of the signings or potential signings of this offseason has the “good for him” feel of JR Hildebrand getting the fulltime ride with Ed Carpenter Racing. Sometimes, good things do happen to good people.