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James Hinchcliffe of Canada drives laps during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (BRENT SMITH/Reuters)
James Hinchcliffe of Canada drives laps during practice time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. (BRENT SMITH/Reuters)

Motorsports

Hinchcliffe a clear contender to start on pole Add to ...

Canadian racer James Hinchcliffe feels the characteristics of the new car being used in IndyCar this year means a driver could win the 96th Indianapolis 500 from the back of the field. True or not, don't expect him to be the one trying it.

“I think you could feasibly start last and win the race, but that’s not the ideal situation,” he said.

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“It’s really a much less traumatic day if you start up front and run up front and finish up front. I think in a 500-mile race, there are a million other variables that are potentially working against you, so eliminate one by starting up front. I think that’s a more ideal situation.”

Hinchcliffe was responding to teammate Marco Andretti’s suggestion that a back-to-front Indy win was possible.

IndyCar introduced a new chassis at the beginning of 2012 that replaced a car that had been used for about a decade. Essentially, a racing car creates a pocket of dead air behind it, much like an 18-wheeler on the highway. A driver can get into the pocket and use the reduced drag to squeeze a few extra kilometres per hour out of the package.

The new car seems to amplify this, with some drivers saying that it stretches out 10 car lengths behind the new DW12. The trade-off is that following a car in the pocket forces the car's tires to work harder to keep it on the track and this increases the risk of skidding into the always-present wall.

While the Oakville, Ont. driver would prefer to be at the pointy end of the grid, he had a suggestion for his Andretti Autosport teammate: “I mean, if he wants to volunteer and do that, it would be a hell of a show and I would cheer for him – no doubt about it – but that’s certainly not the road I’m going to try and take.”

Instead, Hinchcliffe looks to be a clear contender to become the second consecutive Canadian to start on pole for the 500-mile race after Alex Tagliani from Lachenaie, Que. took top spot in qualifying last year.

He'll have a bit of extra juice available in his car in Saturday's Pole Day shootout when he makes his attempt, after IndyCar allowed the engine manufacturers to crank up the turbo boost on the motors, which should add about 40 more horsepower.

With a car that has been near the top of the timesheet throughout practice, Hinchcliffe also has the luxury of spending most of his track time working on race setups rather than concentrating on capturing the pole.

“We’ve done a little bit of qualifying work – obviously the emphasis is on the race for obvious reasons. You know, we don’t have to ‘make the show’. We’re in. We know that. We’re here, so we’re in. And unfortunately, that’s always an exciting part of qualifying weekend.”

Hinchcliffe and the rest of the top drivers haven't had to worry about not getting a spot in the race because they know they can be quicker than the two Lotus-powered entries.

While no one knows who will be on pole when the grid shakes out over the weekend, one thing does seem crystal clear: The only two Lotus-powered cars will be the last of the 33 starters, if they make the field.

In the practice sessions so far, retired Formula One driver Jean Alesi took the role of moving chicane in a car that was about 25 kilometres per hour slower than the rest of the field. The other Lotus driver, Simona de Silvestro, was about two km/h slower than Alesi.

The troubles with the underperforming Lotus engine so far this year saw all of its cars abandon the engine supplier prior to Indy for either Chevrolet or Honda power, save for two.

Ironically, the only thing that has the two Lotus cars in the field is the fact that there haven't been enough Chevys or Hondas available to get the Dragon Racing outfit on track.

Should the two outsiders – four-time Champ Car champion Sébastien Bourdais and rookie Katherine Legge – get a shot to qualify, it would be a good bet that they'd push Lotus from the grid completely.

Qualifying will be shown on TSN2 starting on Saturday at 11 a.m. EDT, while the race is on May 27 at 11 a.m. EDT on TSN.

Canadian Tire Motorsport Park makes its debut

Yes, the diehard fans will continue to call it Mosport, but this weekend marks the official race debut for the renamed Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Coincidentally, the headline act this weekend on the 10-turn, 3.96-kilometre road course is the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series season opener, and reigning champion Scott Steckly will return to defend his title. Steckly, of Milverton, Ont., is sponsored by – you guessed it – Canadian Tire.

The two-time champion will have plenty of challengers gunning for his crown in 2012, with a total of 29 cars entered for Sunday's tilt, including two-time champion Andrew Ranger and 2010 titlist D.J. Kennington, of St. Thomas, Ont.

Ranger, from Roxton Pond, Que., holds the series wins record, with Kennington and Steckly tied in second.

The title-winner depth chart does not end there. Also in the field is the youngest-ever Canadian Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (CASCAR) champion J.R. Fitzpatrick, who has been racing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series of late. Fitzpatrick, of Ayr, Ont., goes into the season with five-time CASCAR champion Don Thomson Jr. as his crew chief.

The 12-race season wraps up on Sept. 22 at Kawartha Speedway in Fraserville, Ont. Along the way, it will be on the undercard of the Edmonton Indy in July and the NASCAR Nationwide Series stop at Montreal's Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, but the stock cars won't be making an appearance at this year's Honda Indy Toronto.

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

Twitter: @jpappone

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