In Counterpoint, Paul Dalbey and Steph Wallcraft of MoreFrontWing.com face off on topics related to the IZOD IndyCar Series. Neither reviews the other's argument until after the article is compiled for posting. It's up to you to decide who's made the better case!
This week: Which driver is most deserving of the title of 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year?
Break out the Red, White & Blue! If you ask me, the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series Sunoco Rookie of the Year trophy is coming back to the United States for the first time since 2008. This time, it will be in the hands of Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand.
Though he enters the season finale at Las Vegas with a slim six-point deficit, Hildebrand has shown the moxie on ovals this year to finish his rookie campaign strongly. The support of Panther Racing, one of the best-performing teams in the paddock on 1.5-milers, creates the perfect combination to get the job done.
The highlight of Hildebrand’s year obviously came at Indianapolis, where he came within one turn of becoming only the ninth rookie ever to win the 500. The fallout and exposure that followed the last-lap crash and the professional manner in which he conducted himself taught us more about Hildebrand than we might have learned if he had actually won the race. He is a remarkable young talent both on and off the track with an extremely bright future ahead of him.
Getting past fellow rookie James Hinchcliffe for the title will be no small feat -- Hinch does have a slightly better average finishing position that Hildebrand this season (13.9 for Hinch vs. 14.9 for JR). However, the experience of Panther Racing on the ovals will be the key factor that lets Hildebrand overcome the deficit he faces. Though the statistics don’t necessarily show it, Hildebrand has performed better on ovals this season than Hinch has. For example, this past weekend at Kentucky, Hildebrand was battling in the top three for most of the event until his pit incident eliminated him from competition. Hinchcliffe was running strongly as well, but he was in the bottom half of the top 10 for most of the event before eventually finishing fourth. That’s not to say that Newman/Haas Racing won’t put together a quality ride for Hinch, but Panther unquestionably has an advantage when it comes to setting up cars for ovals -- Panther cars have won many races on 1.5-milers, but Newman/Haas is still searching for its first such victory in INDYCAR competition. Wrapping up the season on an oval allows Panther Racing to prove its mettle and put their many years of high-speed experience to use.
Another way that Hildebrand has set himself apart is that his accomplishments this season have been completed, for the most part, without a teammate. There is no question that being able to call on Oriol Servia’s experience has helped Hinchcliffe greatly this year, and JR has been producing his results without the same type of consistent support. However, it is no coincidence that in two of JR’s best races this year, Indianapolis and Kentucky, he has had a teammate to bounce ideas and setups off of -- and Buddy Rice will be back in the Panther Racing stable at Las Vegas, which will be a huge boost in helping JR get across the line first.
In reality, this battle could simply be won by the driver who doesn’t make a rookie mistake that knocks him out of contention. Both of these drivers have had a tendency to succumb to careless errors in the heat of competition. While Hildebrand has had of share of rookie mistakes this year (including the aforementioned incidents at Indianapolis at Kentucky), Hinchcliffe has a reputation for not being able to deliver when needed most, including his off-road excursion at Mid-Ohio that took him out of a competitive finish and several incidents last year in Firestone Indy Lights competition. Even factoring in this year’s last-lap disaster at Indianapolis, if it comes down to choosing which driver can deliver under pressure, my vote still goes to Hildebrand.
With his obvious professionalism, Panther Racing and Buddy Rice in his corner, and a Firestone Indy Lights championship under his belt to prove that he can close the deal, all signs point to JR Hildebrand walking away as the 2011 Sunoco Rookie of the Year.
Few Rookie of the Year races have been as captivating and have garnered as much attention as this year’s down-to-the-wire battle between JR Hildebrand and James Hinchcliffe.
Before entering a discussion of which driver is more deserving of the title, it’s critically important to establish up front that both of these young hotshoes are massive stars in the making and are deserving of high praise regardless of how the points battle plays out.
But if you’ve gotta pick one? Come on -- you’ve gotta pick James Hinchcliffe.
I know, I know -- I’m Canadian, so of course I’m going to back Hinch, right? While that’s true to an extent, our common nationality is actually relevant to this discussion because it means that Hinch’s career has been on my radar for quite a while. I think I can therefore offer a different perspective on exactly why Hinch is so deserving of the title.
See, many people would agree that this point is enough on its own: Hinch is going into the final race of the season with a six-point lead over JR for the Sunoco Rookie of the Year trophy, and he didn’t even start at St. Petersburg because he was still waiting for his funding to come in. He made up a full race’s worth of points over the course of the season. That’s huge.
But hidden beneath that obvious point is a nuance that makes this far more significant: Hinch has been known for many things over the course of his career, but consistency hasn’t traditionally been one of them. He’s had a bit of a reputation for choking under pressure. And that reputation kept him languishing in the junior formulas for longer than was really healthy for his career. There were some observers who worried that his inability to close the deal would prevent him from ever getting his opportunity to shine. And when he finally did get that opportunity, many of those same folks thought -- no, assumed -- that he would blow it.
A quick look at this year’s stats shows how wrong those people were. Hinch has three top-five finishes to JR’s two. He has seven top-10 finishes to JR’s five. It’s been tight all season long, but Hinch has been just that little bit better, just that little bit more consistent. He’s embraced the tutelage of his more experienced teammate and the knowledge base of one of open-wheel racing’s longest-running teams and has used them fully to improve himself as a racer.
In short, Hinch has grown. He’s no longer just the slightly dorky guy from Oakville, the self-declared Mayor of Hinchtown. He’s demonstrated maturity and self-improvement far beyond what’s expected of a race car driver in any season, let alone his rookie year. The title of Sunoco Rookie of the Year would be the most fitting label possible for James Hinchcliffe’s 2011: the year that turned his career around and set it onto a better path.
There’s one more reason why I feel Hinch is deserving of the title: he and I share a Canadian childhood racing idol in Greg Moore. If Hinch is able to come away from this season as Rookie of the Year, he will have accomplished something that Greg wasn’t able to do, and I know exactly how much that would mean to him. That reverence for his Canadian racing heritage coupled with his stellar performance this season would make Hinch as deserving a candidate for Rookie of the Year as there’s ever been.
Hinch: We’re all pulling for you up here. Go get ‘em, eh.
Paul Dalbey (@Fieldof33) and Steph Wallcraft (@99forever) are co-editors of MoreFrontWing.com (@MoreFrontWing), your source online for blogs, photos, podcasts and more covering the IZOD IndyCar Series and beyond. Reach them both at firstname.lastname@example.org.