If there was one phrase uttered after this past Sunday’s inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix NTT IndyCar Series street race in Nashville that best describes James Hinchcliffe’s performance, it likely would be “Now, that’s what I’m talking about!”
Using a combination of great pit strategy, as well as having the best car of the Andretti Autosport stable that day, the Mayor of Hinchtown finished third, earning his best series finish—and first podium showing—since a similar third-place outing at Iowa in 2019.
To say the least, it looked like vintage Hinch as he earned the 18th podium of his IndyCar career. He drove his butt off, remaining in the top-five for most of the 80-lap event. It was definitely encouraging to Hinchcliffe and his large fan base.
“Such a strong result for the 29 guys, the Capstone/Genesys Honda and Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport,” Hinchcliffe said with a big smile afterward. “We’ve had a rough year, there’s no doubt about it.
“We’ve had a lot of things go against us. We thought we were following the trend and got stuck in that traffic jam in Turn 11, but Brian Barnhart [strategist] on the pit stand made a great call to get us in the pits (on Lap 17).
“That sort of switched the race for us. We were saving fuel there at the end so we couldn’t really fight (Scott) Dixon there too hard (for second place, behind race winner Marcus Ericsson). That two-lap sprint there at the end was exciting and (I’m) happy to bring home a podium.”
Needless to say, Hinchcliffe is looking forward to picking up where he left off in Saturday’s IndyCar race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course, part of a joint IndyCar/NASCAR weekend.
“It’s always nice racing the weekend after a strong result, as you like to keep that momentum going,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was great getting the podium in Nashville, but last week means nothing this week.
“We’ve not had the strongest car on the road course the last little while, but hopefully some lessons learned from (the Indy Grand Prix in early) May can translate here to the Genesys car and we can have a strong showing across the team. At the end of the day, it’s always awesome to go racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.”
Hinchcliffe’s history on the IMS road course has been mixed. His best career finish on the twisting and turning layout was third in 2016 (he also started third, his best start on that track, although he has started three times on the front row of the Indianapolis 500, including from the pole in 2016).
But he’s also struggled on the IMS road course. After his last top-10 in 2018 (finished seventh), he’s finished 16th, 11th, 14th, 13th and 18th in successive races there.
While any additional strong showing will be a bonus in the season’s five remaining races, success for Hinchcliffe may have come too late for him. Team owner Michael Andretti said a few weeks ago that he planned on making some driver changes after this season.
Alexander Rossi and Colton Herta are locked-in to return. Ryan Hunter-Reay will likely come back (especially if primary sponsor DHL wants him to return). That kind of leaves Hinchcliffe as the odd man out at Andretti Autosport.
But if he does depart, Hinchcliffe has options. There likely will be at least a couple open seats following this season with other teams. Hinch would likely be a man in demand, as he has always been a great ambassador for sponsors as well as the overall NTT IndyCar Series.
One rumor out there is he may move to defending Indianapolis 500 winner Meyer Shank Racing, as Jack Harvey recently reportedly turned down a multi-year deal to remain with the team beyond this year. Harvey is rumored to either replace Takuma Sato (if he retires or moves on) at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, or potentially may drive a third entry for RLL if Sato stays.
Hinchcliffe, 34, would be a strong replacement for Harvey, and partnered with defending Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves—who will go from a part-time effort this season to a full-time ride with the team in 2022—could give MSR arguably the most popular driver lineup in the sport.
Or, Hinchcliffe could potentially pivot into broadcasting, which he has definitely shown a knack for, most recently his analysis on Superstar Racing Experience telecasts on CBS-TV.
As Hinchcliffe said, last week means nothing. But this week could mean a great deal in determining what his future holds.
Follow Autoweek contributor Jerry Bonkowski on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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