By Christopher DeHarde, IndyCar & Road to Indy Writer
NEWTON, Iowa — JR Hildebrand got his chance to prove that his testing work last year was not done in vain. Finishing second in Sunday’s Iowa Corn 300 at Iowa Speedway for the Verizon IndyCar Series showed it.
Hildebrand received much of the credit for then-teammate Josef Newgarden’s victory at last year’s Iowa Corn 300 by testing and perfecting the car’s setup while Newgarden was nursing injuries from a crash at Texas Motor Speedway.
Newgarden led 282 laps last year and Hildebrand had the same car for Sunday’s race and finished second, just under four seconds behind winner Helio Castroneves.
Hildebrand was effectively leading the race late, running second behind Marco Andretti who had yet to make his final pit stop. However, Andretti was on much older tires and after a mix-up with some late race traffic, Castroneves was able to sneak by both Hildebrand and Andretti to get the lead on Lap 268, which Castroneves never relinquished.
For the Ed Carpenter Racing driver, it was his fifth race at Iowa Speedway going back to Indy Lights and it was his fourth top ten and his second top five.
The biggest problem for Hildebrand though was unpredictability of lapped traffic.
“I was catching up to a lot of guys that were really unpredictable in terms of where they were putting their cars,” Hildebrand said.
“In (Turns) 3 and 4 in particular, both lanes were still kind of there, and so you’d be catching up to a guy […] and they’re running in the high lane, so you’re thinking, ‘Okay, I’m going to run low so I can get up close and have clean air going through the corner and work my way around him or whatever,’ and then you’d catch up to him.
“That lap they’ll run the bottom, and it was just kind of — I guess that for me when it’s not for position is really frustrating to deal with because it’s just like — that’s not stuff that I do to leaders if I’m getting caught in a race,” Hildebrand added.
Getting held up by a lapped car is what made Hildebrand’s performance turn into a second place effort instead of a winning one. However, the 2009 Indy Lights champion believes he had a shot at winning had he not gotten balked by a lapped car.
“I think we probably had Helio’s pace. I got jammed up in traffic, which is when he got by. For a period of time there even with a lapped car between us, we were basically holding station,” Hildebrand said.
“I think if I could have kept him behind me for longer and I’d have been in front and we were just kind of battling it out, he would have had a heck of a time getting by me as I was in more clean air. But that’s just kind of how it goes.
“Yeah, I felt like we definitely had a car that could have won today, just kind of based on outright pace. So I think we can feel good about that heading to certainly St. Louis and some of the other ovals,” Hildebrand added.