Toronto driver James Hinchcliffe made a last-minute dash past Ryan Hunter-Reay to grab fourth place at the Kentucky Indy 300 on Sunday afternoon.
The 24-year-old matched his IZOD IndyCar Series season-best performance at the 2.41 km Kentucky Speedway tri-oval while Ed Carpenter took the checkered flags.
Hinchcliffe missed a spot on the podium by 0.1959 of a second, however, he told the IMS Radio Network he was pleased with his Newman/Haas Racing team’s performance.
“The Newman/Haas team did a phenomenal job,” Hinchcliffe said. “[Teammate] Oriol [Servia] was up there near the end as well so I’m super happy for all the boys and hopefully we can carry this into [the final race in] Vegas.”
Hinchcliffe picked up 32 points, and with a total of 302, he moved ahead of J.R. Hildebrand (296) for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year lead. He entered Kentucky only 14 points behind Hildebrand, despite missing the opening race of the season in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Hildebrand qualified fifth for Sunday’s race and started right behind Hinchcliffe on the grid.
The third-place qualifying was a season-high for Hinchcliffe. His previous best was fourth at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in August where he also finished fourth in the race. Hinchcliffe was thrilled to have a great time after finishing in the two oval races at Texas Motor Speedway 20th and 19th, respectively, in June.
“We didn’t quite know what to expect coming into the weekend because the last mile-and-a-half was Texas and that didn’t go so well for us,” Hinchcliffe said in a video posted on Newman/Haas Racing’s Facebook page.
“But we worked really hard on the racecar and it feels really good in traffic so we’re surprised but thrilled.”
Hinchcliffe held his own at the start of the race, but during the first round of pit stops, he was forced to slow down to avoid Ana Beatriz, who collided with Will Power, punching a hole in the sidepod of Power’s Verizon Team Penske vehicle.
Hildebrand was running with the leaders until Lap 140 when he pitted during a full-course caution. But the 23-year-old American ran too close to the wall and injured a member of his Panther Racing crew.
After everything had settled, Hildebrand had dropped to 21st. He finished the race in 20th.
“We had some trouble in the pits today and kept coming in third, fourth, fifth but coming out eighth, ninth, 10th,” Hinchcliffe said. “Some things are out of our control, J.R. had a problem in front of us … but the car was good and we just picked those places back up.”
Hinchcliffe used his overtake button three times during the final laps for an extra speed boost to vault himself into fourth place but he also gave credit to his car’s aerodynamics.
“I think we had a little bit more downforce than the fast guys, so I couldn’t lead very well but I could push guys,” Hinchcliffe said.
“At one point, I was pushing Oriol back up to the pack near the end there and letting [Wade] Cunningham go by so I could push him up … but once we were in the pack, I think the extra downforce was helping.”
The 2011 season wraps up on Oct. 16 with the IZOD IndyCar World Championship in Las Vegas.