Canadian James Hinchcliffe jumped back in the IndyCar championship fight in dominant fashion on Sunday, leading 226 of the 250 laps of the race in Iowa to score his first career victory on an oval.
The 26-year-old from Oakville, Ont., immediately took the lead from second on the starting grid and controlled the race from the front in a performance that even impressed the guy behind the wheel "I watched guys win races like this on TV and my whole career, I thought, 'I just don't get it, like how do they do that?'" said Hinchcliffe, who also became the first IndyCar driver to win three times in 2013.
"Now, I know: You have to have a hell of a good car, a hell of a good crew and just hit your marks all afternoon long. Everybody performed: If it was the guys in the pits, the setup, me and my spotter making good decisions out on the racetrack, and, man, it feels good to do it like that."
Hinchcliffe scored his first career IndyCar win in the 2013 season opener on the streets of St. Petersburg, Fla., after passing leader Helio Castroneves of the Penske Team with 26 laps left. His second triumph came in early May on the streets of São Paulo, Brazil, on the strength of a sensational last lap, last corner pass on A.J. Foyt driver Takuma Sato.
In between the two victories, Hinchcliffe suffered through a pair of 26th-place finishes as well as a string of three results outside the top-10 following Brazil. He had two consecutive top-10s coming into Iowa before taking his third win of 2013.
He certainly didn't need any dramatic overtakes to take the chequered flag this time around, effectively leading the race throughout and only giving up the top spot during pitstops.
"In St. Pete, I led the last 20; in Brazil, like the last hundred feet, and here, today, to do what we did, we got [polesitter] Will [Power of the Penske Team] on Lap 1 there and really never looked back," said the No. 27 Go Daddy driver who had led a total of 99 IndyCar laps in his career coming into Iowa, and just 33 on ovals.
"We were fast out front by ourselves, we were good in traffic and we didn't have a whole lot of yellows (full-course caution periods) to contend with, which I think was really good for us."
Hinchcliffe's move to the Andretti squad in 2012 after a rookie season with the Newman-Haas team has been pretty good for him, too. He took over the Go Daddy car made famous by media darling Danica Patrick who left IndyCar after the 2011 season to try her hand at stock cars in NASCAR full-time. So, far he's won three times in 25 starts with Andretti, making him the only Go Daddy driver in IndyCar or NASCAR to win in the bright green car.
Hinchcliffe's team owner, Michael Andretti feels his No. 27 team has gelled in its second season and its driver is only getting better as time goes on.
"He showed great brilliance last year in a lot of races and even races before and other teams that he's been with," said Andretti who won 42 races and one title in his IndyCar career.
"It's always one of those deals, you get that first win and it seems like the next one comes a little bit easier because you have that confidence to know that you can do it, and I think that's where James is right now. He knows he's capable of winning and if he can just hopefully get through all his problems and continue to do what he's doing, I think he has a good shot at the championship."
The win on the 0.875-mile oval moved Hinchcliffe from ninth in the points standings to fourth with 266. Castroneves leads with 332 followed by defending IndyCar champion Ryan Hunter-Reay second at 323 and Marco Andretti on 277 points. Hunter-Reay and Andretti are Hinchcliffe's Andretti Autosport teammates. Drivers get 50 points for a win.
With nine starts to go in the 19-race IndyCar season and three Andretti drivers in the thick of the battle, the most important thing for Hinchcliffe is to ensure his Andretti team repeats as the champions. "That's obviously going to be a more complicated question in five or six races," said Hinchcliffe, when asked about battling his teammates for a title.
"I would like to think that we are all going to run each other fair and we are going to continue to work as well together as we can, because what you have to remember, it's not just us in this championship. If we start battling each other internally off track, then the other guys are going to catch up and pass us, and then we are fighting over second, third and fourth – that's not what we want to do.
Hinchcliffe has little time to bask in his success, as his team begins a test at the Pocono International Raceway on Tuesday. The Canadian will finally get a weekend off following the Pocono test before getting back into his car for the IndyCar Series return to the Pennsylvania tri-oval, known as the "tricky triangle," on July 7.
After Pocono, Hinchcliffe makes his return to Toronto where the series will stage one of its three doubleheader weekends, with full distance races on both Saturday and Sunday.
When he arrives in Toronto for his third hometown IndyCar race, fans will see a mature driver focused on getting the most out of his car and ensuring his title challenge stays on track.
"We are not going to be in a position to win every race, we know that – but I think that we have found our way into finishing where we have to on the day you've got a ninth place car, finish ninth. It's a lot better than wrecking and going for eighth," Hinchcliffe said.
"We are enjoying what we have got now and the success we've had, but we have got to keep our heads down and work harder than ever if we want to get back up here."
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone