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Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe of Canada competes in the Honda Indy car race in Toronto July 8, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Andretti Autosport driver James Hinchcliffe of Canada competes in the Honda Indy car race in Toronto July 8, 2012. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)


Canadian James Hinchcliffe looking for his first IndyCar win this season Add to ...

As the IndyCar Series begins its 2013 season this weekend, James Hinchcliffe has a simple mission: Score his maiden victory.

“For us, that’s the No. 1 goal,” he said.

“At the same time, we appreciate how competitive the series is and how hard it is to actually win one of these events – many things have to fall your way and luck has to be on your side to a certain extent. I just think that if we go each weekend and maximize our package, a win is going to come.”

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Hinchcliffe’s third IndyCar campaign gets underway officially at the St. Petersburg, Fla, street circuit on Sunday. (Sportsnet, noon ET)

After taking seven top-six finishes in the first eight races of 2012 and rising to as high as second overall in the point standings, it looked like a matter of time before Hinchcliffe made it to the top step of the podium last year. Unfortunately, he faded in the second half and only managed one more top-six result, which saw him end the year eighth overall.

Although his Andretti Autosport Team usually gives him a car that capable of taking him to the winner’s circle, things will likely tighten up this year as the teams go into a second season using the Dallara DW12 chassis introduced in 2012.

“It’s going to be pretty close and there will be so much emphasis on qualifying and just getting everything out of it and putting a whole lap together because losing a tenth could be huge,” Hinchcliffe said.

“The big question mark and the potential wildcard is the tires. The 2013 road and street course tires are quite a bit different than last year and so some teams might get a handle on them quicker and that might mix things up a bit.”

Last year’s St. Pete’s race produced an emotional scene after Helio Castroneves took the win and then did his trademark climb up the catch fencing right under a sign marking the newly-named Dan Wheldon Way. The English driver was killed in a multi-car crash at the 2011 season finale in Las Vegas.

“We were extremely excited and happy to start the season like that,” Castroneves said.

“The celebration was even better, having the Dan Wheldon sign in respect over there, and to celebrate, it was a memorable coincidence and it was just really great, great to remember him the way he lived, and not what happened the year before. So it was a very emotional, crazy win.”

This year’s field on the 14-turn, 2.9 kilometre street course will have a bit of a different look than 2012, with several drivers changes over the winter. Most notably, eight-race winner Ryan Briscoe is without a ride this year after not returning to his seat at Penske following five seasons with the team. He is now with Level 5 Motorsport in the American Le Mans Series.

E. J. Viso joined Andretti while Simona de Silvestro took his vacated spot at KV Racing. 2008 St. Pete’s winner Graham Rahal left Ganassi to race for his father Bobby at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing.

The other Canadian in the field, Alex Tagliani of Lachenaie, Que., returns with the Barracuda Racing squad.

A new feature this year will be the doubleheaders in Detroit, Toronto and Houston, where there will be full-distance races on Saturday and Sunday. The doubleheader format also ensures IndyCar has two races in Canada on its 16– city, 19-race schedule after the Edmonton event was axed late last year. The season ends Oct. 19 at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

One thing that remains constant from the past three seasons is Penske driver Will Power’s attempt to break his championship jinx and finally take home his first IndyCar title. He has finished second overall in each of the past three seasons.

With the series featuring 13 street and road course races this year, the Australian’s prowess on those circuits should help him immensely as he tries to capture the top prize. In the past three seasons, Power has taken the chequered flag in 13 of the series’ 26 road and street races and more significantly, has only finished out of the top-5 in five of those starts.

He’ll be looking to keep that streak going in the season opener.

“There are 19 races this year and they all count,” Power said.

“You will have your good ones and bad ones, and I think it’s important to start the season well and start off on a positive, but it’s not the end of a day if you have a bad one. It’s racing, just go there and have fun really.”

Although fun may be in the agenda, Power and the 23 other regular drivers in the series will also be looking to de-throne reigning champion Ryan Hunter-Reay, who is Hinchcliffe’s teammate at Andretti.

Hunter-Reay took a season-high four wins on his way to the 2012 title, including a victory in Toronto last July. Although everyone will be gunning for him this year, the Texan feels the experience he gained in the championship battle last season will help him defend the crown.

“I definitely learned a lot – I learned a lot about consistency and what it takes to put together a few race wins in a row – it was definitely a season of firsts,” he said.

“I learned a lot about dealing with the pressure of championship fights and kind of channelling that into positive energy to make it really benefit you when you need it. It’s something that I’ll use in the future for sure going forward.”

For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone (No login required!)

Twitter: @jpappone

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