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James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, races into Turn 10 during the IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race on Sunday, March 24, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hinchcliffe went on to win the race. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
James Hinchcliffe, of Canada, races into Turn 10 during the IndyCar Series Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg auto race on Sunday, March 24, 2013, in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hinchcliffe went on to win the race. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Motorsports

Now we know Hinchcliffe can win - but can he do it again? Add to ...

The next time James Hinchcliffe leads the pack late in an IndyCar race, he’ll get more respect from his fellow drivers, who now know he can seal the deal.

Well, that’s what the No. 27 Go Daddy driver hopes is the case when he arrives to race this weekend at Alabama’s Barber Motorsport Park after scoring his first IndyCar win two weeks ago. Hinchcliffe won in impressive fashion, by fending off three-time Indianapolis 500 winner Helio Castroneves of the powerful Penske Team for 26 pressure-filled laps.

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“I think the way it happened made it that much sweeter,” said the winner of the 2013 IndyCar season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., on March 24.

“I think next time you are in that position, you no longer have those question marks: ‘Can I do it? Am I going to make a mistake? Is he going to get by me?’ And I hope the mentality has changed on the other drivers’ side of things in my favour rather than more pressure and expectations being put on me. They know now that I have been in a high-pressure situation when everything was on the line and I had to perform and I did it. I didn’t make a mistake.”

Hinchcliffe took his maiden victory after pressuring Castroneves into an error on a late restart and moving into the lead with 26 laps to go. He then drove almost flawlessly to put his first career IndyCar victory in the win column.

Despite the superb performance, Hinchcliffe insisted the victory doesn’t really make him feel like he’s a different driver.

“If anything, I feel relief,” he said.

“I got to this place and level to win – just getting here is not enough. The fact that almost every Canadian IndyCar driver has been a race winner weighed on me a little bit, and I didn’t want to let the team down. There was a lot of pressure from my end to get it done and to get it out of the way now just ends that question. Now that I know I can do it, maybe we can do it a few more times.”

The victory came in Hinchcliffe’s 32nd IndyCar start and his second season with Andretti Autosport. He began his IndyCar career in 2011 with the legendary Newman/Haas squad, taking the Rookie of the Year crown despite missing the first race of the season.

Last season, Hinchcliffe joined Andretti Autosport, replacing media darling Danica Patrick who left IndyCar for the greener pastures of NASCAR’s Nationwide Series. While the Go Daddy girl grabbed media headlines wherever she went, Patrick was not able to get the bright green car into Victory Lane in her two seasons driving for her high-profile sponsor. That also goes for other drivers driving in top-tier professional series, like Mark Martin, who flew the Go Daddy colours in NASCAR before Patrick’s arrival.

“I really wanted to give them that win,” Hinchcliffe said.

“This company has done so much in motorsport and supported the team and myself over the past 13 months or so. Whether they are in motorsport for another 20 years or not, I will always be able to say that I gave them their first win and it was definitely a special feeling.”

Canadian racing veteran Ron Fellows, whose first professional triumph came in the Player’s/GM Challenge Series at Quebec’s Sanair Circuit in 1986, insisted that the maiden racing win should help Hinchcliffe loosen his grip on the steering wheel, clear his head a little bit, and lead to greater focus.

After Hinchcliffe’s St. Pete’s performance, Fellows sent him an e-mail essentially telling the young driver that the first one is always the toughest and the next one will be easier.

“He’ll remember that for the rest of his life,” said Fellows, who knows a thing or two about winning.

“He did it in great style, showing a lot of quality race craft, not getting rattled and not running off his tires. He drove as if there was nobody in his mirrors. There was one little bobble with about 10 laps to go in the last corner, but he put his head down and began to pull away. It was a really great drive.”

In his career, Fellows recorded 19 Trans-Am Series victories, three American Le Mans Series drivers’ championships, class wins in 24 Hours of Daytona, 24 Hours of Le Mans, and 12 Hours of Sebring, and four NASCAR Nationwide and two NASCAR truck Series triumphs.

While many races have come and gone since his first success, Fellows still remembers the way his maiden victory gave him a huge confidence boost, raising his personal expectations and the team’s for the next race and well beyond.

“Everybody in the team gets pumped up,” he said.

“It’s a team sport and while the driver is the main figure in it all, everybody plays a part. When you are running at the front and winning races, it translates into energy that goes right from the engineers to the mechanics and to the truck drivers and everyone works extra hard because they also feel confidence that they have a chance to win at every race.”

That said, Hinchcliffe will be taking nothing for granted going into Sunday’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama.

Although he might have an extra spring in his step, in the “what have you done for me lately” world of racing, Hinchcliffe knows that he must keep everything in perspective.

“St. Pete is done and that does nothing for us anymore,” he said.

“Monday after the race win, I sent an e-mail to my engineering staff saying ’thank you guys we did a great job all around but, let’s be honest, we weren’t the fastest car out there and we have work to do.’ It was tough e-mail to send, because, on one hand, you don’t want to sound critical but, on the other hand, St. Pete is not the championship and we have to keep working.”

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

Twitter: @jpappone

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