He's commonly known as the Mayor of Hinchtown.com, but maybe it's time to call James Hinchcliffe "The Comeback Kid."
Despite missing the first race of the IndyCar season, the Oakville, Ont., driver now leads the rookie standings after an inspired performance in the second half made him the class of the first year drivers going into the final weekend at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I feel good about my season no matter what happens in Las Vegas," said Hinchcliffe whose late deal with Sprott Securities only got him into the No. 06 Newman/Haas car after the first race of 2011.
"To claw back that much of a gap — essentially we fought back almost an entire race win worth of points — and that alone is a testament to the effort we put in. Actually, I am going in to the final race pretty unstressed."
Hinchcliffe found himself in a 22-point hole compared to fellow first-year driver J.R. Hildebrand with two races in the books and dropped 33 behind after the Indianapolis 500, the fifth race of 2011. But he fought back, outscoring his rookie rival by 39 points in the next 11 starts. With drivers earning 50 points for a win, it's an impressive feat.
As a result, Hinchcliffe is ahead by a scant six markers as the drivers hit the track Thursday for the first practice sessions leading up to Sunday's IndyCar season finale at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval.
"It's a new situation for us because we've been chasing all year along and now we get to go into the last race a little bit ahead, but it's not a big point spread by any stretch," Hinchcliffe said.
"We've both had experiences this year where we've seen how quickly a good race can go bad and how quickly a bad race can turn out for the better, so there's so much that can happen in these races. It's just going to be about trying to have a clean race and finish as high as we can."
The last Canadian to take the IndyCar rookie crown was Patrick Carpentier, who was the best of the first-year crop in the old Championship Auto Racing Teams (commonly known as CART) in 1997. The only other Canadians to take home an IndyCar rookie trophy are Thunder Bay, Ont.'s, John Jones (1988) and 1997 Formula One world champion Jacques Villeneuve of Iberville, Que., (1994).
Hinchcliffe arrived in Las Vegas on the heels of an inspiring performance in the last race at the Kentucky Speedway, where he fought at the front for most of the Indy 300 and didn't look a lick out of place. The 24-year-old scored his third fourth-place finish this year and for the second time on an oval, where he has limited experience.
It was a far cry from his debut with Newman/Haas in April when Hinchcliffe's IndyCar career got off to an inauspicious start at best in the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama at the Barber Motorsport Park. While he qualified an impressive eighth, the race didn't go exactly as planned. Hinchcliffe made a mistake on the first lap and spun, dropping him to the back of the field. Later in the race, he was caught in a crash on a restart and suffered irreparable damage to his car. He ended the day classified 24th out of 26 cars.
Things turned around in the next outing at Long Beach, Calif., where he took his first career top-5 finish by coming home fourth.
Fast forward to the final weekend and Hinchcliffe is 12th overall and just 12 markers adrift of 10th place, with 302 points on the strength of three top-5s. In addition to leading the rookie standings with one race to go, he is also the top Canadian in the series, six points ahead of veteran Alex Tagliani, who sat out the last race in Kentucky.
And while he hopes to build on that top-5 in Las Vegas, Hinchcliffe's results on the two 1.5-mile tracks so far have been mixed at best.
"Up until Kentucky, our only 1.5-mile oval was Texas and that was, as a team, our least competitive weekend. We were terrible," he said.
"We came into Kentucky not knowing what to expect and huge kudos to the team for doing their homework and solving the problems we had in Texas. We are being pragmatic [going into Las Vegas]because we look at it that on 50 per cent of the 1.5-mile tracks we've been competitive and on 50 per cent we haven't."
That said, running at the front lap after lap in Kentucky with some experienced veterans, including three-time champion Dario Franchitti and two-time titlist Scott Dixon, certainly boosted Hinchcliffe's confidence level.
While the consistency is not there yet, Hinchcliffe has shown genuine pace on several occasions, something which he hopes to carry into Las Vegas and next year.
The result in Kentucky also came after Hinchcliffe decided to "man up" and take off some downforce in qualifying so he could get a starting spot with the front-runners. It worked and he started a season best third.
But he's also quick to give credit to his Newman/Haas team, which has played a key role in his success this year.
"Racing is not about cars, or engines, or tires — it's about people. And if you get the right combination together, you are going to be very successful," he said.
"My team obviously prepares a great car every time out but, for me, one of the biggest assets is how well they prepare me as a driver. They are so detailed and thorough with the information and the breakdown of everything that I go into every new situation feeling so prepared. [Teammate]Oriol [Servia]plays a big part in that as well."