By Josh Farmer, IndyCar Reporter
AVONDALE, Ariz. – Cast off, gloves on. JR Hildebrand is glad to be back this weekend at Phoenix Raceway.
Hildebrand was forced to sit out last week’s Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama after he broke his left hand in a last-lap accident with Mikhail Aleshin at the 43rd Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach three weeks ago.
If breaking a bone in his left hand wasn’t bad enough, the incident came just three months into his full-time return to the Verizon IndyCar Series.
“It’s hard when you’re in a situation like that,” he said. “You feel like it’s kind of out of your hands. We didn’t even get to a point that I was trying to get back in the car, figure out if that was possible there, just because the doctors that worked on my hand were pretty firm in their feeling that even if I could sort out how to run there, it was going to be causing — I was putting myself at fairly significant risk for longer-term damage.”
The 29-year-old California native was cleared earlier this week to race in tonight’s Desert Diamond West Valley Phoenix Grand Prix. Given that he was the fastest driver at the series’ mass “Prix View” open test in February at the 1.022-mile oval, Hildebrand feels that things can fall back into place nicely.
“Definitely feels good to be coming back here,” he said. “It’s a little easier to get back in a car at a place where you’ve been competitive. There was no reason that we didn’t expect to be competitive here again when we showed back up.”
Ed Carpenter Racing as a whole is looking to turn things around. Hildebrand’s teammate Spencer Pigot, a part-time road and street course specialist who shares the No. 20 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet with team owner Ed Carpenter, stormed through the field after starting 19th to score an eighth place finish at Long Beach. He was on pace for a top 10 run at the season opener at St. Petersburg, but a bizarre brake rotor explosion took him out of the race.
Hildebrand finished 13th at St. Petersburg and was running in the top 10 before his incident at Long Beach.
While some good finishes did not come together for the team, Hildebrand noted that the team needs to improve as a whole on the road and street courses.
“We’re working really hard to find where those areas are, what we can do as drivers and crews to be a little bit more dialed in when we show up at road and street courses,” he said.
“That’s a process that we’re sort of, you know, continue to go through but we’ve definitely made gains. I think the fact that our race pace tends to be pretty good is at least, you know, one positive among all the things that you work on.”
Hildebrand showed no signs of slowing down as he qualified a career-best starting spot of third for tonight’s IndyCar race at Phoenix Raceway.