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Hinchcliffe facing big questions heading into IndyCar off-season

Don’t be surprised if you hear James Hinchcliffe humming a certain Clash tune this off-season.

“Should I stay or should I go?”

Hinchcliffe is now a coveted free agent on the IndyCar market after wrapping up a three-year stint with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports following Sunday’s season finale race in Sonoma.

The 30-year-old from Oakville, Ont., could re-sign with SPM and it appears they’re keen on retaining him as team co-owner Sam Schmidt told recently he’s “pretty confident” about getting a new deal done.

Continuity is key in IndyCar and sticking with SPM would provide stability for Hinchcliffe as the team’s established No. 1 ace. Moving on wouldn’t necessarily guarantee the same level of comfort, or position on the team’s depth chart, and most likely lead to a rebuilding year to start.

Hinchcliffe has found some success with SPM to build off with two wins plus five other podium finishes under his belt, including back-to-back third-place results at his hometown Toronto race. He also qualified on pole position once at the 2016 Indy 500 just a year after his near-fatal accident at the track. Hinchcliffe also has close ties to Honda Canada and SPM just signed a new deal with Honda to strengthen their partnership, which in turn could help elevate them.

However, while the highs have been high, the lows have also been quite low as inconsistency has handcuffed Hinchcliffe from contending for the title. Hinchcliffe has had a rocket ship of a car — as noted by those two wins and Indy 500 pole position — but he’s also experienced more than his (un)fair share of problems that have prevented him from keeping pace with the powerhouse teams of Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport on a week-to-week basis. Hinchcliffe finished 13th in the championship for the second consecutive season and as one of the most popular drivers in the series, IndyCar needs him to be in the hunt for championships to capitalize on that attention.

Having a sub-par supporting cast of teammates with a rotation of Mikhail Aleshin (who was given the boot late into the year), Sebastian Saavedra and rookie Jack Harvey this past season has also put Hinchcliffe at a disadvantage. Drivers count on their teammates and crews to exchange data for the right setup on race day and when they’re struggling just as bad as you are it doesn’t make for a great weekend. Too often you’ve heard the team went with a “kitchen sink” setup, i.e. nothing else was working, and that’s not exactly a vote of confidence in winning races. SPM needs to bring in someone who complements Hinchcliffe, or at least a driver who can compete for the full season.

So, let’s humour the thought by looking at Hinchcliffe’s options beyond SPM.

If he were to take his talents elsewhere it would have to be to one of the Big Three, otherwise, it’s a sideways shift at best. The trio of Penske, Ganassi and Andretti have had a stranglehold on the championship since 2003 with Josef Newgarden clinching Penske’s third title in four seasons this past Sunday.

Ganassi and Andretti both use Honda engines, which makes them more appealing for Hinchcliffe than Chevy-supported Penske.

Hinchcliffe had his best seasons with Andretti, finishing eighth overall in 2012 and 2013, but they seem to have their lineup already set for next season after renewing Alexander Rossi’s deal and signing newcomer Zach Veach to replace Indy 500 winner Takuma Sato. Ryan Hunter-Reay is locked up and, well, Marco Andretti isn’t going anywhere.

Rossi drives through the first turn during the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500. (Michael Conroy/AP)

That leaves Ganassi as a possible destination and they may also have a seat open with Tony Kanaan hinting at leaving.

Hinchcliffe could unlock his true potential at Ganassi. He’d be the No. 2 driver on the team as long as Scott Dixon sticks around, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as the four-time IndyCar champion and winner of 41 races is one of the all-time greats on and off the track. You couldn’t ask for a better teammate. The two would provide quite the formidable duo and give Penske and Andretti a run for their money.

Sure, Kanaan had just one win in four seasons with Ganassi, but the 42-year-old from Brazil is in the twilight of his IndyCar career while Hinchcliffe is right in his prime.

Should Ganassi express interest, it’s an avenue worth considering, otherwise sticking with the status quo is Hinchcliffe’s best option.