JR Hildebrand and Toronto’s James Hinchcliffe will start one spot apart on the grid as their battle for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year award comes down to the final race of the season at the IZOD IndyCar World Championship this Sunday.
Hinchcliffe, driving for Newman Haas Racing, qualified 14th with an average speed of 220.701 mph around the 1.5-mile tri-oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Friday.
He was just 0.062 mph faster than Hildebrand and told IMS Radio Network he was hoping to crack the top 10 in qualifying.
“It’s been unfortunate, but it’s one of those races we’re hoping qualifying is not the be-all and end-all,” Hinchcliffe said. “You still want to be as close up to the front as you are so you’re not in too much of a mess when the race starts.”
Paul Tracy, the “Thrill from West Hill,” has raced part-time this season and will start 26th in the field. Tracy admitted his Dragon Racing car hasn’t been competitive in qualifying.
“Our focus is the race and we just don’t have the parts and the bits and all the trick stuff that it takes in qualifying to be fast,” Tracy said. “The focus really is just on the race and where we end up in qualifying is where we end up.”
Hinchcliffe has also been focused on race day and told reporters after Thursday’s practice that the speedway was great before suddenly changing his mind.
“The track is awesome,” Hinchcliffe said. “Actually, maybe it’s not awesome because it leaves us so much grip and so much freedom to put the cars where we want that we are giving each other much less margins out there.”
Although Hinchcliffe missed the opening race of the season in St. Petersburg, Fla. as his team was still putting their program together, he’s climbed to 12th in the standings with 302 points, six ahead of Hildebrand for the top rookie spot.
The 24-year-old could be the first Canadian to win rookie of the year since Patrick Carpentier, from Joliette, Que., took the honours in the CART series in 1997.
Hinchcliffe also has a chance to finish within the top 10 in the overall standings, sitting just 12 points behind Danica Patrick in 10th.
The previous race at Kentucky was also a mile-and-a-half in length and Hinchcliffe qualified third, his best start of the season, but finished fourth despite some slowdown in the pits.
Although the two tracks are similar in length, Hinchcliffe said Las Vegas will be a much different race than Kentucky.
“With Kentucky being so bumpy, the cars move around a lot more so you didn’t see as much [freedom],” Hinchcliffe said. “It’s going to be a show.”
As for Tracy, the 42-year-old isn’t hanging up his racing shoes after the season and is looking towards next year.
“We’re trying, obviously, I’ve got great partners in Honda Canada, Motegi and ARMA, they all want to do more next year,” Tracy said. “[Finding] the right team and the right partner to do that with is the next quest and then hopefully we can put it all together.”
The final race of the year will feature a season-high 34 cars on the grid and Hinchcliffe said it could be anyone’s race.
“With these 1.5-mile tracks, you just never know,” Hinchcliffe said. “Literally, with the way this field is and the way this track runs and the way these races tend to go, there is not a single car on this grid that doesn’t actually have some shot of winning this race.”
The green flag for the IZOD IndyCar World Championship drops at 3:45 p.m. ET on Sunday.