Heading into the 2013 IZOD IndyCar season, familiar faces like Ryan Hunter-Reay, Will Power, Helio Castroneves, Dario Franchitti, and Scott Dixon were some of the names factoring into the battle for race wins and the series title. After all, they're proven winners and championship caliber drivers who are aligned with powerhouse teams like Andretti Autosport, Penske Racing, and Target Chip Ganassi.
Perhaps one driver who may have been overlooked but is no longer overshadowed is 26-year-old James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ontario, Canada. The third-year racer now competing in his second full season campaign with Andretti Autosport's No. 27 GoDaddy.com Dallara/Chevy ride has looked stout thus far with three wins (including his first career win at St. Petersburg) and a fourth place position in the points heading into Sunday's 400-miler at Pocono Raceway (Live on ESPN on ABC at 1 PM EST).
While his season has been somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde experience with five finishes outside of the top-10, he's certainly looked very competitive and strong thus far, a position ahead of last year's pace when he was fifth heading into race 11. Ultimately, "Mayor Hinch" concluded his sophomore effort with an eighth place result, which was a great, respectable showing.
With his three wins at St. Pete, Sao Paolo, and Iowa, has the young gun changed his approach? After all, there was some talk about "James 2.0" earlier into the season, a driver who appeared more poised and confident behind the wheel.
Was this really the case or one where maturity and experience intertwined?
"I think I'm the same person, that's for sure," Hinchcliffe said during Tuesday's IZOD IndyCar conference call. "But every race you do, every lap you do, every corner you do, you learn something and you grow as a driver. And you know, last year, obviously, my second year in the series, I learned an awful lot. But more than anything, I learned the areas I needed to improve in if I was going to be a winner at this level."
Winning at St. Pete and Sao Paolo showed the critics that he could win in the IndyCar level. However, winning at the Iowa Speedway nearly wire-to-wire was perhaps the strongest demonstration of this phenom's abilities in the open wheel cars.
Naturally, Hinchcliffe attributed his success to his teammates over at Andretti Autosport as well as the crew who work on his fast machines.
"Having somebody like Ryan (Hunter-Reay) on the team and getting to watch how and he his engineer conduct themselves on a race weekend, and more specifically throughout a race, I learn an awful lot from them," Hinchcliffe said. "Coming into this season, there was a couple areas that I was very conscious and I knew as a driver that I had to improve on. I knew in terms of communication with the team that we could improve on and we sort of hit on all those points before St. Pete, and you know, I guess it worked.
"But, you know, again, even with three wins now this season, there's still a lot of learning to do and there's a lot of growing to do as a team, and the continuity has been a huge part of it. And having Craig come on board in the engineering role has been a huge part of it. We just need to keep learning and keep growing and hopefully we can just keep being competitive each race."
Being competitive is exactly what's needed if Hinchcliffe hopes to hoist the series trophy at the season finale in Fontana, CA this coming October. Before visions of unfurling and holding the red and white colors of the Canadian flag become reality, consistency and strong performances down the stretch are needed.
From the "Tricky Triangle" of Long Pond, PA to the Auto Club Speedway, there's more twists and turns than The Beatles' "Long and Winding Road" from the Let It Be album. Dual races at the street circuit of Toronto awaits Hinchcliffe and his comrades along with Mid-Ohio, Sonoma, the streets of Baltimore, as well as a pair of Houston street races.
The road to the title isn't easy but that's why in order to be the best, one must beat the best. Sunday's race at Pocono could be that perfect opportunity to be in position for the title all summer long, which "Hinch" prepared for by watching tapes and a recent test session at the 2.5-mile superspeedway.
"You know, I watched a bunch of footage before we got to the test, and mostly from NASCAR, and I decided about lap two that I was going to spend more time looking up old IndyCar footage, because it's just so different for us than it is for a stock car," Hinchcliffe said. "We learned an awful lot at the test obviously and got up to speed in a lot of ways, but there's definitely still something to be learned. I know the last race was back in the 80s, but the race craft and sort of how to pass, be passed, set things up, you can still learn a lot from those guys. A lot of talented drivers were in the field back then and it's going to be cool to see how it plays out for us, for sure."
Today's talented drivers include Will Power, Dario Franchitti, Helio Castroneves, Scott Dixon, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti, Takuma Sato, and of course, James Hinchcliffe. Much like their predecessors like Michael and Mario Andretti, Al Unser Sr. and Jr., as well as Rick Mears, the stars of the 2013 IndyCar Series aim to put on a competitive and spirited race much like the Indianapolis 500 just a month and a half ago.
Don't be surprised to see Hinchcliffe mixing it up and being a major factor as the race winds down this Sunday. As long as that bright green and black No. 27 machine is in the thick of things, there's no telling what results could await the Canadian talent and his equally skilled team on race day.
Mr. Hinchcliffe, the stage has been rented, the orchestra will be engaged on Sunday - it'll be time to see how dominant and strong this team can be when the going gets tough in the final nine races of this competitive IZOD IndyCar season. Let 'er rip.