It’s All About Good Timing

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As I mentioned last week, James Hinchcliffe will be taking over the No. 26 car vacated by Zach Veach last week. Veach had said the reason he was stepping away was so that Andretti Autosport could talk to several drivers as they prepared for the 2021 season.

It appears that the interviews are now closed, because Hinchcliffe is in the car for all remaining three races of this season. I would be shocked if anyone else besides Hinch is in that car for 2021.

I was rightfully chastised last week for assuming that Veach’s sponsor, Gainbridge, was going away at the end of this season. Although I disclosed that it was only an assumption on my part for the purpose of the point I was making in my post this past Friday, I didn’t leave much of a door open in case I was wrong. Over last weekend, I talked to a few people that led me to believe that Gainbridge may actually stay on the car, at least in some capacity.

But I also know that Genesys was very happy with their association with Hinchcliffe for the three races he ran for them this season. It looks as if Gainbridge will be on the car for the remaining three races of 2020, but that would make sense – they’ve already paid to have their name on the sidepods for those races.

But what will the car look like in 2021? Right now, all we can do is speculate.

Some say Genesys was already ready to fund Hinchcliffe for a full season next year. Others insist it will be Gainbridge on the sidepods of the No. 26 car in 2021. I’ve seen the suggestion that the two companies will split the 2021 season, much like what NAPA and AutoNation are doing with Alexander Rossi.

Of course, there are some who say we know nothing about anything. They say Hinch has nothing more than three races at the end of this season; and to suggest otherwise is reckless. Isn’t that most of the fun of the silly season, to wildly speculate on what might or might not happen? These naysayers also make it clear that they think no sponsors have been signed for the No. 26 car for next season or beyond.

That last statement may be true, technically – but you can’t tell me that Michael Andretti hasn’t had serious conversations about sponsorship for the “empty” car for next year.

Most recently, we learned from Marshall Pruett at Racer.com that Michael Andretti gave Gainbridge a choice. If they stayed with Veach, it would not be with Andretti Autosport. If they wanted to stay with Andretti, they could be on the car of Colton Herta or Hinchcliffe in 2021. It looks like they chose to dump Veach; which actually surprises me, considering the relationship they had.

I think Michael Andretti already knows pretty much what that car will look like next season, both the livery and who will be in the cockpit. I think he is just down to finalizing a few details. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here to say that James Hinchcliffe will be in the No. 26 car for the next several seasons. I can’t say for certain who the sponsor will be, but Michael Andretti has usually been very successful at finding needed sponsorship. I don’t think this case will be any different.

James Hinchcliffe should be in the car. In fact, he never should have been in a position to leave Andretti Autosport after the 2014 season in the first place.

Hinchcliffe has had some very bad luck when it comes to his IndyCar employers. After finishing second in the 2010 Indy Lights championship, Hinchcliffe got his big break when he was signed as teammate to Oriol Servia in the second car at Newman/Haas for the 2011 IndyCar season. The trouble was, this was not the Newman/Haas Racing that we all knew. Paul Newman had already passed away and Carl Haas was in poor health and had little if any to do with the day-to-day running of the team. The storied team never ran another race after the end of the 2011 season.

Dan Wheldon had been signed to rejoin Andretti Autosport and drive the Go Daddy carto replace the departing Danica Patrick. But when he was fatally injured at Las Vegas, James Hinchcliffe got the call to drive the Go Daddy car.

Hinchcliffe drove for Andretti Autosport for three seasons from 2012 to 2014. Go Daddy left after the 2013 season, but United Fiber & Data came on board. But they wanted to scale back their sponsorship for 2015 and Andretti wanted to fo from four fulltime cars to three. With no sponsorship for his car, Hinch was the odd man out.

At this same time, Simon Pagenaud was leaving Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the greener pastures at Team Penske. Sam Schmidt needed a quality driver and Hinchcliffe needed a decent team, so they signed a deal. With new sponsor Arrow on board for 2015. It seemed like a great opportunity for the young and affable Canadian. He had won three races while at Andretti, and won in only his second race with Schmidt – at NOLA. But it was a star-crossed tenure at Schmidt for Hinchcliffe.

During the final practice for the 2015 Indianapolis 500, a suspension piece malfunctioned as Hinchcliffe was going into Turn Three at speed. A rod pierced the tub and went completely through Hinchcliffe’s abdomen. Had it not been for the quick work of what is now known as the AMR Safety Team, Hinchcliffe would have bled to death while still in the cockpit of his car. He was out for the season.

Hinchcliffe had the final say on the track that almost took his life. When he returned to Indianapolis in May of 2016, he won the pole for the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500. But fate can act in a strange way. Two years later, Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the race – making it two out of four years that Hinchcliffe would not be in the Indianapolis 500. Later that same year, his teammate and best friend, Robert Wickens, had a horrific crash at Pocono that left him a paraplegic for the moment. More than two years later, Wickens is making tremendous progress toward his goal of not only walking again, but getting back into an Indy car. He is still involved with the team as a driver coach, but his best friend is no longer with the team.

McLaren was on a mission to merge with an existing team. Schmidt Peterson Motorsports was ripe for the picking, under the condition that they switch from Honda to Chevy since Honda would no longer do business with McLaren from their days together in Formula One. Hinchcliffe had a personal relationship with Honda that he probably was in no hurry to end. The relationship between Hinch and McLaren was already on shaky ground from the start, but a nude photo shoot appearance in ESPN The Magazine, that tastefully showed nothing, was what Arrow and McLaren used as the reason to end the relationship. Hinchcliffe was out of a job.

He worked hard in the offseason to put together a three-race deal with Genesys and took it to his old employer, Andretti Autosport. During the other races when Hinch was out of the car, he was moonlighting as a pit reporter at NBCSN. He flourished in that role and it’s pretty obvious what Hinchcliffe will be doing after he retires from the sport. Hinch will be thirty-four when the next season starts, so he is no hurry to pick up the microphone again for television. That can wait. He has some unfinished business to do.

The NTT IndyCar Series needs James Hinchcliffe as much as he needs the series. He is not the most talented driver in the paddock. In fact, I can probably name seven drivers off the top of my head that have more driving talent than Hinchcliffe. But most of them don’t have the likeability that Hinch has. If you don’t think that matters, ask yourself why Buddy Rice had so much trouble getting a ride. He had about as much talent as anyone in the field when he was driving, but he was about as likeable as a hemorrhoid.

Josef Newgarden is probably the leader in the valuable combination of talent and likeability. He has the personality that the series can market. Being from Nashville is not the only reason he is being used in all of the early marketing promos for the Music City Grand Prix. He has the “it” factor. Hinchcliffe might have a little less talent than Newgarden, but he is actually a little more likeable, in my opinion. He has such a spontaneous and genuine sense of humor, that you really can’t help but like him.

I am hoping that James Hinchcliffe closes out his career at Andretti Autosport. He has had very rocky tenures at other teams through no fault of his own. After one year at Newman/Haas, the famous team folded. After three years at Andretti, the team decided to scale down to three cars, leaving him standing without a chair. At Schmidt, a faulty suspension piece breaks and he almost died as a result. Then McLaren comes in and kicked him to the curb, leaving him with nothing but a three-race deal that he scrounged up on his own.

With Ryan Hunter-Reay nearing the end of his career, Alexander Rossi is the leader at Andretti. Colton Herta may be the future, but this seems to be the perfect time for James Hinchcliffe to come in and bring the team some race wins, something they had been lacking until Mid-Ohio earlier this month. This time around, James Hinchcliffe seems to have timing on his side for once.

George Phillips

7 Responses to “It’s All About Good Timing”

  1. I have reason to believe Michael Andretti wanted Simona to replace Danica but her manager wouldn’t let her do it. At that time Dan Wheldon had strong ties to Honda and Andretti was a Chevy team. Dan finally decided Andretti was his best chance at a full time competitive ride and signed the contract the morning before he died. This was one of several blunders Simona’s former manager made and she’s been trying to get her career back on track ever since.

  2. billytheskink Says:

    Aw, I liked Buddy Rice.

    Hinch’s odds at the Andretti seat seem better than even at this point. I expect he can win a few races and finish in the back half of the top 10 in the standings for them. I believe it is good for the series when he is in a car.

  3. Paul Fitzgerald Says:

    The only thing I don’t agree with you is that Newgarden is a personality star. He’s a great driver but not very personable to me. I might be in the minority but that’s how I feel.

  4. I hope you’re right that James is given the full time ride next year at Andretti. I am still bitter about how the whole McLaren merger turned out for him. I do enjoy him as both a pit reporter and in the booth (wish it was more often), but that is in the future.

  5. Based on some of what Robin & Marshall (and maybe something I read on Motorsport) I think Michael wants to retain Gainbridge but not for Hinch. He wants it for Colton. That way his top two drivers will be set with full time sponsorship.

    I could also see Michael wanting to bring over Conor and his Air Force sponsorship to run the #26. I’d hate that for Ed, but it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen bigger teams nab sponsors from smaller teams.
    If that happens, perhaps Hinch ends up taking partial Genysis sponsorship over to Ganassi to ride share with Jimmie Johnson.

    Then…….Santino finds money, brings it to Michael to run the #28 car next year.

    As a result of all this……….Ryan Hunter Reay moves over to Ed Carpenter racing to either share the #20 car with Ed, or run full time alongside VeeKay.

    While I’m at it, with Conor now wrapped up in a full time ride at AA, Tony Kanaan signs with Carlin to run the oval side of the #59 car with the agreement that he’ll provide sponsorship for the ‘500’ and Carlin will provide him a car since Chilton already runs the ‘500’ in the #59.

    Don’t worry boys, I didn’t fall off the wagon. Still sober. Just having some fun. That’s what silly season’s all about!

    p.s. With Santino moving to Andretti, Palou slides into the top seat at Coyne Vasser Sullivan, and then Dale signs Mika Duno and Marty Roth to share his second car! lol

  6. Oliver Wells Says:

    Also the series needs a competitive Canadian for obvious reasons. Kellett will sadly never deliver.

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