May 23, 2014, 9:30 AM EDT
J.R. Hildebrand would be excused if he looked upon racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with a sense of dread.
In 2011, Hildebrand was on the verge of winning the Indianapolis 500 as a rookie when he crashed in Turn 4 of the final lap, giving the win to the late Dan Wheldon. And last year, the former Indy Lights champion was the first out of the race when he crashed on Lap 3. A few days later, he was out of a ride at Panther Racing.
But Hildebrand, who starts ninth in Sunday’s ’500,’ looked every bit at ease yesterday when he spoke about working with polesitter Ed Carpenter this month.
“Right from the outset, we had similar styles and similar wants from the car, and very similar feedback about what was happening and maybe some different ways to go about attacking that,” Hildebrand said.
“…It really has been a team effort and I think qualifying was a good example of that – you wouldn’t be able to make a radio call up to your guy that’s gonna go out in ten minutes and have them make a change to the car based on something that we did unless the cars were that close together, and for us, fortunately, it happened.
“It’s been great. I’ve really enjoyed working with the team and I think Ed would probably tell you the same thing. Working together I think has put us in a situation where the cars are as good as they are, so it’s been a lot of fun.”
Considering Carpenter’s prowess on the ovals, you had to figure Hildebrand would stand a puncher’s chance for Indy when he signed on with ECR for the ’500.’
But the California native brings lots of talent himself, and it bears noting that he was threatening to pull the upset for Bryan Herta Autosport at last year’s season finale on the two-mile Fontana oval until a late engine failure knocked him out.
Going into Sunday’s race, Hildebrand believes he is much more prepared for the race that he has been in previous years.
“It’s a long race, obviously,” he said. “You’ve got to stick it out and have a shot at it at the end but I feel like this team and the environment that we’ve sort of created has been a really good one for being in a position to do that.”
And should Hildebrand be able to capitalize, he’ll be able to completely put his heartbreaking finish in 2011 to rest. He touched on the incident yesterday, noting that while he quickly came to terms with it, his own confidence needed a little more time to recover.
“In terms of understanding what went on and being at peace with it, that happened quickly,” he said. “To get to the point where I am now, where I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I want to get back in the car and show these guys what’s up.’ That definitely took a little longer to come around.”
But it has come around. And it’s looking more and more like he’ll be a dark horse on Sunday in the No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Chevrolet.
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