By JENNA FRYER, Associated Press
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — James Hinchcliffe still isn't over the disappointment of losing the Indianapolis 500 pole by a measly 9 inches to Ryan Briscoe.
It's a sign of just how much has changed for Hinchcliffe in a very short period of time. He wasn't even in IndyCar two years ago, when he was a guest commentator for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio team during the race.
Now he's on the front row for what's become the biggest race of his life.
"I've got a much different seat this year than I did in 2010," he laughed.
Does he ever.
Sunday's race could be the official launch party for the driver many believe is rapidly becoming one of IndyCar's new stars. He was a rookie last season known more for his savvy social media skills and marketing abilities than he was for his nondescript finishes with Newman-Haas Racing. When the team closed suddenly in December, he was out of a job.
Andretti Autosport had an opening, and it just happened to be the most visible seat in the series.
And that's how Hinchcliffe became Danica Patrick's replacement. That's exactly how he was known, too, and he embraced the role immediately. He posed for a photo in his bright green Go Daddy firesuit wearing heels, donned a long black wig during driver introductions at the season-opener and gave himself the nickname "Manica."
But when he climbed into the car, he was incredibly serious, and his team is running better than it ever did with Patrick. He's the only driver in IndyCar to make it to the Fast Six round of qualifying in every event, he scored his first career podium at Long Beach and he goes into the Indy 500 ranked third in the points standings.
Now it's his driving that's getting attention, and that Danica stuff is quickly becoming secondary.
Asked if the stage is set for his official breakout, Hinchcliffe answered with his natural wit and charm.
"Do I look like I am breaking out with something? Do I need a cream for it?" he smiled. "But I'll tell you, this month has been incredible. It takes me a lot longer to walk from the garage to pit lane than it did 12 months ago, and it's cool. It's overwhelming. I still don't fathom why anyone would want my autograph: I'm just a dorky Canadian kid who likes driving race cars."
The 25-year-old was scouted by team owner Michael Andretti as he climbed through the junior ranks, and Andretti had his eye on Hinchcliffe when he had a seat to fill. The late Dan Wheldon was originally set for Patrick's car, and there weren't many available drivers following his October death.
When Hinchcliffe became available on Dec. 1, Andretti snapped him up and the driver hasn't looked back since. His personality and ability to promote are evident, but it's been his performance that's validating his season.
Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner and an analyst on ABC, thinks Hinchcliffe is the total package and lauded the driver's ability to hold an audience — even comparing him to Ayrton Senna and Jackie Stewart.
"It's always difficult to pick a driver and say, 'He has all the pieces,' but he's shown a lot of speed on the street courses, he's the de facto leader of Andretti Autosport, he has charisma and he's engaging," Cheever said. "I get very bored listening to drivers and I've measured them over the years to Senna, Jackie Stewart, and I can actually sit and listen to him. I listened to him yesterday for 10 minutes.
"He's already niched out this person, it's a natural ability, and he's also (very) quick on the race track."
Four-time series champion Dario Franchitti, a two-time Indy winner, said he didn't think much of Hinchcliffe two years ago when he was racing in the IndyLights Series. Then he took off with Newman-Haas last year, and this season has so far been another huge leap.
"I didn't see it coming. When I saw him two years ago in Indy Lights, he seemed like a nice guy, a nice driver, but nothing special," Franchitti said. "Then he gets in an Indy car and something happened, something clicked. He's driven well since the first time he got in the car. He's fast, but he's smart, too. He knows what he's doing. He's got something out of the car, too: He's got that personality."
Franchitti was also touched on pole day when he noticed Hinchcliffe carrying the late Greg Moore's red gloves in his car. Moore was Hinchcliffe's idol when he was growing up, and the Canadian was one of Franchitti's closest friends when he was killed in a 1999 accident.
"When I saw the red gloves, I knew why he was carrying them," Franchitti said. "That was a beautiful thing. He was paying tribute to his hero."
The next step comes Sunday, when Hinchcliffe has a legitimate shot to win the 500. The entire Andretti organization has been strong, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti will start third and fourth. Off the track, Go Daddy will debut its first national television ad with Hinchcliffe, who co-stars with Patrick in a spot shot earlier this month.
A win would be life-changing for Hinchcliffe, but he's refusing to look that far ahead.
"This race proves time and time again ... it's not over until it's over," he said. "It's just such a long race, and you've got to be so patient and you never know what can happen. So, for us its really is just trying to take this thing one lap at a time, because there are going to be curve balls thrown at you, there's going to be wrenches thrown in the plans."
So how will he prepare for all of those scenarios? In classic Hinchcliffe fashion, of course.
"You go kick Briscoe in the shin, and you slip something into Hunter-Reay's cornflakes," he laughed.
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