By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
AVONDALE, Ariz. – JR Hildebrand’s return to the cockpit ended very sweetly with his first podium in nearly six years.
While still nursing a broken bone in his left hand, the driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet was on pace throughout the entire day and came home in third place, his best finish since finishing second in the 2011 Indianapolis 500.
“I’m excited to get the result for the team,” said Hildebrand. “The car was bitchin’. At the end of the race, I know we got a top three but we might have had the best car on the track.”
While Team Penske drivers Will Power and Helio Castroneves set a blistering pace up front, Hildebrand found himself as the lone non-Team Penske driver to be on the lead lap. A yellow flag for Takuma Sato’s crash in Turn 4 on lap 138 handed the lead over to Simon Pagenaud, who drove down pit road but did not stop as the caution flew.
Once Pagenaud pitted and the field was waived around, Hildebrand lined up fourth when the race restarted on lap 149. He settled into a nice rhythm over the course of the run while driving aggressive and not letting the Team Penske brigade get out of his sights.
The pivotal moment for the 28-year-old from Sausalito, California, came on lap 221 when Josef Newgarden and Ryan Hunter-Reay came together. Newgarden fell out and the scuffle accordioned Hildebrand and Castroneves together and allowed Hildebrand to breeze past.
He then set his sights on second place Will Power. As the pair navigated lapped traffic, Hildebrand cut the margin down but ultimately came up 0.2389 of a second behind Power at the checkered flag.
Pagenaud went on to win the race.
Lapped traffic came into play as the race wore on, and Hildebrand noted that he had to manage the situation very carefully while still trying to catch Power.
“I think the thing that ends up being tricky at races like this is you’ve got guys that are a lap down but they’re racing for top-10 spots,” he added.
“Usually when you’re lapping cars on a road course, there are guys that are at the back, they’re struggling, there’s no stress to let you by.
“We’re racing against guys that are racing even harder than we were at times. So that ends up becoming a difficult thing to kind of manage. You have these like different differentials and speed, but everybody’s racing each other just as hard as anybody else is.”
Ed Carpenter Racing has had some good runs but some no so decent finishes the first three races of the year. Coming back to a track where he showed promise during testing, Hildebrand felt that a good run was a good shot in the arm for him and the team and will help build momentum for Month of May.
“I think it’s definitely just something that we needed in the team, to be able to come to somewhere we knew we’d be good at,” he said.
“The first couple of races have been a little bit challenging, just getting things dialed in. The field is so stacked and competitive here in the IndyCar Series these days, it’s difficult to come away with consistent, good results. This is somewhere we looked at on the schedule and knew we would have a fighting chance at it.
“I think sort of coming away with a good weekend, executing at a high level, getting through everything, definitely builds some confidence going into the month of May, where we’ll hope to do that again.”