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Counterpoint: Which driver is most deserving for Rookie of the Year?

Steph Wallcraft and Paul Dalbey
| Oct 04, 2011

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 feedback@morefrontwing.com.


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  13. 13 Joni 24 Oct
    AKAIK you've got the aenwsr in one!
  14. 14 bazooka joe 17 Oct
    nice prediction that the rookie of the year award is going to the red white and blue more like the red and white try canada buddy. rip dan wheldon is the man.
  15. 15 Rob 11 Oct

    Definitely Hinch.  He has proven that he can be both competitive and consistent.  As well, he gets my endorsement for the way that he interacts with everyone, fans, Indycar officials, and fellow drivers.

  16. 16 N & D R 10 Oct
    It is Hinch all the way!  We will be watching you receive the trophy James!
  17. 17 CJ 10 Oct
    I'm am American; JR drives the National Guard car for the National Guard team and that's a 365 day a year PR responsibility.  When it comes to speaking with the press, he needs work, but get him in front of the troops and he is magical.  He's also sans a couple of huge faux paus a pretty great, gentleman behind the wheel of the car.  Maybe Hinch deserves to win because of points but this is the Indy Car Series and I'd really like to see an American win.  It's bad enough that we might have to look at Dario and his activist/communist wife win the championship again.  Blah.
  18. 18 Ken 09 Oct
    Tough call... both racers seem to have tons of future greatness written all over them... but all things considered Hinch seems to have the edge over JR.  With only a 6 points separating them before the last race, it's all going to be based on the final outcome at LVMS ... My vote ... and it's a very tough call.. is for Hinchcliff 51% to 49%
  19. 19 Kirk Berkhardt 08 Oct
    J.Hinchcliffe for sure!!!No doubt about it...Consistance , Hinch  takes it!
  20. 20 tom 08 Oct

    credit to JR for almost winning Indy but looses credit for losing Indy 500 when it was his to take its Hinch for me

  21. 21 Drew 08 Oct

    I understand for the website you had to have devils advocate, but it must be hard writing pro's for JR.  About the only thing that I really thought hmm, that makes sense is the fact he is American.  I would love to see the trophy here in America, but in all reality it should go to the driver who has shined more through out the year.  And with out starting in the first race Hinch has managed to pull a lead in points.  And it was mentioned that Hinch has choked under pressure in the past.  How can you over look JR's indy 499.75 win, oh wait thats right its the indy 500, I mix that up on occasion too, granted Hinch didn't fair all that well in the race but I feel as if a win that was in the bag is much worse of a rookie mistake than Hinch's mistake on his in lap.  

    Further more, if personality was a factor in the rookie of the year battle, JR would fall way way way way way short.  I have never seen a more personable or marketable driver in years.  His personality rivals that of Helio and TK and he is just getting started.  JR is bland and to me comes across as if he has a bit of an ego, not so much in his words, but if you watch his interviews and his body language.  Hinch is always willing to hang with the fans and be friendly in interviews no matter how his race or quals went, something that looks as if its a struggle for JR. 

  22. 22 dick 08 Oct
    paul... Do you watch the race... Not only did the 06 out qual the 4... It beat him at the end... If you watch the race you would no the only reason y Hinche was not up Front the whole time was there pit stops... He was 3rd coming into the first stop... And came out 8th... On the next stop the outside rear dropped a nut and lost 2 spots... And on the last stop!!! He was blocked in his pit by the 4! (largest pit box of the year)In yet another huge rookie mistake by jr... This time breaking a team members leg... Which I think is worst than throwing away an Indy 500 win on the last corner.. Ive noticed that you mentioned How great the 4 car is on ovals... JR ave oval q 10.1 ave oval finish 15.5... James ave oval q 9.6 ave oval finish 13th... Yes nhr is a 2 car team... But I would like to put panthers budget against nhr! The truth is nhr is running two cars on a single car budget... Panthers budjet is copareative to the big two... I also noticed u mentioned there ave finishes(jr 14.9/jh 13.9) what about there ave qual... Qual realy let's you know the true pace of a driver... JR ave q 16.8, James ave q 9.6... So if you throw out math and logic... Then Jr should be the rookie of the year! Pleas excuse my grammar.
  23. 23 Dewey Redman 08 Oct
    Yes, two good ones here and either would be a worthy ROY. I
    happen to have been following James since his days at Bridgestone Racing
    Academy and will be rooting for him, intensely. However, if it is a question of
    skill with a razor…
  24. 24 MJZ 07 Oct
    Hinch is ahead and he didn't even race the first race of the year. Hinch all the way. Go NHR; Oriol Servia 4th over all and Hinch Rookie of the Year!!!!!!
  25. 25 Jim D 06 Oct
    Great points guys. I'd have to say the biggest point made is JR being on a single car team. No doubt Hinch benefits greatly from Servia's full-time presence and experience. They are so close that it is hard to choose between them, but the fact that Panther is a single car team makes JR my pick.
  26. 26 seeuatthefront 06 Oct

    Trying to choose sides in this is like asking a parent to pick their favorite kid. I'm a Bay Area native, which is part of why JR got my attention to start with back when he was in Lights, and as a race fan, I'm utterly smitten - he's shown amazing maturity and talent this year, and proven that he truly belongs in IndyCar.

    But, there's also Hinch - who got my attention in Lights as well, before I even knew who was in the car. There was something about his driving style that was very familiar, and very impressive. It took awhile to connect the dots, but long story short, I realized that Hinch reminded me of why I became an open-wheel fan in the first place.

     Can't we have two trophies for this, like we do for the championship?! ;-)

  27. 27 Barry 05 Oct

    Being a Bay Area boy,I've got to pick J.R.Certaintly almost winning the Indy 500 has to count for something?Good luck to both and let the chips fall where they may(so to speak).....


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