JR Hildebrand is ready to return to the Verizon IndyCar Series full-time in 2017. He will do it with the team that gave him a ride in each of the last three Indianapolis 500 races.
Ed Carpenter Racing has been the wild card in terms of the Silly Season, with Josef Newgarden moving to Team Penske. With names like Juan Montoya, Tony Kanaan, Conor Daly, and Sage Karam all being mentioned as possible suitors, it was a familiar face that the team has chosen to take over the No. 21 car next season.
Hildebrand has raced for ECR in five races over the past three years, with fantastic results. In 2014 he started 9th and finished 10th in the Indy 500. In 2015 he started 10th and finished in 8th place. Last year, he led four laps on his way to a 6th place finish driving the No. 6 Preferred Freezer Services / Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet.
Team owner Ed Carpenter said, “We first started talking about this in 2013 and the timing has just now worked to give JR an opportunity to show what he can do with a full-time ride. The job that he has done for the team each time we have put him in a car the past three years has proven to us that he is the right man for the job. Whether it has been his role with the team during the past three 500s or the testing he has done for us over the past two years, he consistently shows he deserves a full-time opportunity.”
The other two races he drove for the team were the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis, on the road course. This is where he’ll need to prove himself. Known as an oval specialist, Hildebrand finished 21st and 22nd in those two races, one lap down. While one of those was due to a mechanical failure, he will have 11 non-oval races to navigate in 2017.
Hildebrand has started 37 of his 46 career races with Panther Racing, and his last full-time season (2012) went fairly well. He finished 14th at Indianapolis, finished 11th in the standings, and led 56 laps in the season-finale at Fontana. In fact, he had 5 top-ten finishes (Long Beach, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Mid-Ohio, Sonoma) on the non-ovals that year.
When Newgarden was unable to test after recovering from his injuries sustained in the crash at Texas, it was Hildebrand that filled in for the team. That familiarity and confidence in the 28-year old American is something the team values.
Ed Carpenter will continue to drive the No. 20 car on the ovals. The team has not yet announced who will pilot the car on the road and street course races. There are still several drivers competing for that prime seat.
Though he is still searching for his first IndyCar win, he won five races in Indy Lights, where he was the champion in 2009. The 2011 Indy 500 will always be one of the most incredible finishes, but JR knows that will be much easier to stomach if he is able to put his face on the Borg Warner Trophy. That would be quite the story, especially on the heels of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series.