Honda Indy takeaways: Strategy gamble pays off for James Hinchcliffe

Todd Lewis chats with James Hinchcliffe following his 3rd place finish at the Honda Indy Toronto.

TORONTO — James Hinchcliffe is finally getting used to what it feels like being on the right side of luck.

Hinchcliffe certainly knows how the other side feels — simply put, it sucks — but the Oakville, Ont., native capitalized on a strategy gamble Sunday once again at the Honda Indy Toronto.

The 30-year-old made his first pit stop ahead of the leaders and caught a huge break as a yellow flag soon fell on lap 23 of 85 when Tony Kanaan went into the wall. The leaders pitted and shuffled behind as Hinchcliffe, who started sixth, vaulted up to third and held it steady from there. Team Penske’s Josef Newgarden and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi, who also benefited from pitting early, finished 1-2 across the line.

Hinchcliffe was also on the right side of a yellow a year ago for third and matched his personal-best finish at his hometown track for his second consecutive podium finish on the streets of Toronto.

“We had lots of luck when we came here before, it was just all bad luck and it’s nice the last two years it’s kind of changed,” said Hinchcliffe, who drives the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda. “I would be remised to not mention that both of these podiums really came our way as the result of strategy going our way and yellow flags falling our way. As much as I feel for the guys that got caught out by that one, I’ve been on the losing end of that one enough. We definitely had a string of bad luck so far this season, so to have something to kind of go our way was great.

“We obviously were struggling on the reds [tires], there’s no secret about that, but once we got those black Firestones on, the Arrow car really came to life. On that last stint we were even kind of hunting down Josef and Alex a little bit. I was almost hoping the race was 10 laps longer — that would’ve made it a bit interesting at the end — but all in all just really happy for the whole Schmidt Peterson Motorsports crew and once again happy to give everybody in Toronto somebody to cheer for because they came out in full force today.”

Hinchcliffe admitted he didn’t have the fastest car to start the week, but believed he could have challenged for a higher spot on the podium had the race ran longer.

“I think getting the Fast Six in qualifying was through pure commitment on that one-lap run in Q2 more than us having great stints in the car. When the track rubbered in and the blacks were on the car really did come to life,” Hinchcliffe said. “Hunting down Josef and Alex there at the end proved we had pace and it took us a bit of luck to get up there, but once we were there we hung on. I think we need to work on our car when the conditions are a little slicker, but the more Firestone rubber we got down the more it suited our setup. … We’ll go back to the drawing board and hopefully come back a bit stronger next year in all conditions.”

As Hinchcliffe’s legend grows at his hometown track, so too does his fanbase. Hinchtown’s population has been expanding at a rapid pace and the self-proclaimed mayor embraces being the lone Canadian in the Verizon IndyCar Series fans can look up to.

“More and more every year the support that I feel from this city grows every single year and it’s just incredible. It’s the most humbling thing,” he said. “We did our parade lap in the trucks before the race and I don’t think I’ve seen the grandstands that full here certainly since I’ve been behind the wheel. The energy in the crowd was huge. Even Friday I remember sitting in the car in pit lane and looking up at the stands and going, ‘Man, this is a Friday. This is really impressive.’ It’s just so awesome to feel the energy back in this event. It’s obviously one that has meant a lot to me for a long time.

“We went through some tough years there, but certainly with Honda Canada’s support and everybody at [track promoter] Savoree Green have been doing a great job and building momentum and getting this Toronto race every year and this was the best we’ve seen in a while by far. Hopefully that’s a trend we can keep going and hopefully we eventually get a couple steps higher on the podium for the people of Toronto.”

Nashville, Tenn., native Newgarden also won in Toronto in 2015 and is developing a bit of a friendly rivalry with Hinchcliffe.

“I love beating Hinch in Canada,” Newgarden said with a smile. “I love Hinch. He is a great representative, but this is so good. He was joking actually, we got on TV and he was like, ‘I’m going to go promote Nashville so that we go there,’ because I’m from Nashville and he’s like, ‘We’re going back and I’m going to beat you in Nashville now.’ It’s fun being up here. I love Canada and I love the support.”

No rain

Black skies loomed on the horizon and drops fell about an hour prior to the start, but the rain stayed away during the actual race.

The potential for a downpour was a constant concern leading up and lingered on drivers’ minds right until the finish.

“Even at the end of the first stint there were a couple of drops coming down on the visor,” Hinchcliffe said. “The clouds were looking really dark as you come through turn five and even six you could kind of see them. I didn’t want to get on the radio and ask because I didn’t really want to know, if I’m honest, so I just kept my head down and kept my foot down and luckily I think this is the second time that’s happened that as soon as the race ended it started to rain so we’re glad that Mother Nature decided to play nice today.”

Newgarden was almost looking forward to the rain.

“Glad the rain held off, it would’ve been fun to run in the rain, but at the same time it’s nice when you’re up front to have a very straight-forward race,” Newgarden said. “I think that played into our favour as well.”

Newgarden tops of Penske powerhouse

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that a Penske car ended up in victory lane. All four of the team’s drivers were running near the top during practice and qualifying. Simon Pagenaud led the quartet taking pole position, Helio Castroneves started third and Will Power qualified fourth.

One of them seemed like a lock to win, but it was Newgarden, starting seventh, who topped them all.

Defending Toronto champ Power didn’t even complete a single lap after colliding with Scott Dixon near turn three and damaged the front of his car. Power’s car limped back to the pits, but he couldn’t turn left down the twisting lane and didn’t make it all the way to his box located at the very end. The pit crew had to fetch Power and push his car back to the paddock for repairs. Power was still technically in the race until the team called it a day just past the midway point of the race. It was a huge blow for Power, who was running fast all weekend long and was fourth in the championship.

Castroneves got a jump at the start to slingshot into first, but both he and Pagenaud felt the wrath of being on the wrong side of the yellow and couldn’t bounce back. Pagenaud finished fifth while Castroneves came in eighth.

Meanwhile, Dixon ended up in 10th and maintains his top spot in the championship standings with a three-point lead on Castroneves. Pagenaud remains in the third while Newgarden leapfrogged Power into fourth.

Hunter-Reay holds on in sixth

Not a lot has gone right for Ryan Hunter-Reay this season and it almost looked like things were going sideways again late in the Honda Indy Toronto.

The Andretti Autosport driver nearly lost control with only five laps remaining. Hunter-Reay conceded some track position, but kept the Honda car in check to finish sixth.

“I got out in the marbles when I almost lost the rear going into turn six,” said Hunter-Reay, who won in Toronto in 2012 en route to the driver’s championship. “I got out and into all the pick up. It took me three or four laps to get it off. Just barely hung on, so lucky to get away with that one.”

“It’s alright. It’s a good, solid result,” he added. “We need to go better than that, but to start 16th and finish sixth that’s a good day.”

NHL stars out at the track

There’s something about hockey and IndyCar racing mixing together. David Clarkson, David Bolland and Mike Hoffman were part of the Honda Indy Toronto festivities in the past and NHL players were once again spotted around the track.

Hoffman returned this year as a spectator while Ryan O’Reilly gave the starting command for the NASCAR Pinty’s Series race Saturday. Adam Henrique was also on hand Sunday and waved the green flag during IndyCar’s warm-up session.

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