James Hinchcliffe

He surprised himself as a runner-up in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” but James Hinchcliffe expects better than second place at the racetrack.

That was his best finish for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports in the 2016 Verizon IndyCar Series. In accentuating positives, “Hinch” acknowledges he had some highlights away from the dance floor. In addition to three podium finishes, he celebrated his first career pole in the 100th Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Penn Grade Motor Oil.

The competitive 30-year-old Canadian is convinced he’s on the cusp of being a serious series contender, although a 13th-place points finish in the No. 5 Arrow Electronics Honda suggests otherwise. He’s adamant the past season was better than the statistics show.

“No doubt, no doubt,” he said. “If you wipe the Detroit weekend off the map, you give us back the points from Texas and we finish the race at Watkins Glen, we’re fighting for a top three in the championship,” he said. “It shouldn’t be that surprising. This team has done that before.”

Reigning champion Simon Pagenaud of Team Penske finished fifth, third and fifth in points while driving for team owner Sam Schmidt from 2012 to 2014. When Pagenaud joined Penske for 2015, Schmidt hired Hinchcliffe.

“That’s what’s so impressive about SPM, they are kind of the little team that could,” Hinchcliffe said. “When you think there’s the three powerhouse teams (Penske, Ganassi and Andretti) that combine to make 12 cars or half the grid, if you’re anywhere in the top 12 in points, you’re doing a good job if you’re not one of those (powerhouse team) guys.”

Too many times this season, Hinchcliffe was in position to do better but didn’t. He was running second and ran out of fuel on the last lap in the INDYCAR Grand Prix at The Glen. He finished 18th. He also laments finishing 18th and 21st at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit doubleheader, the first race particularly disappointing after he qualified fourth.

His best race was the Firestone 600 at Texas Motor Speedway, where Hinchcliffe dominated with 188 laps led but was dramatically overtaken in the home stretch by Graham Rahal by 0.0080 of a second, the fifth-closest finish in Indy car history.

“One lap longer, one lap shorter, we win that race,” he said. “But that’s racing. I’ve been on the beneficial end of that before.”

To add insult to narrowly missing victory at Texas, Hinchcliffe’s car was penalized in post-race inspection for excessive domed skid wear. He was docked 25 points, which wound up costing him five positions in the final standings.

He finished third at the Angie’s List Grand Prix of Indianapolis as well as the Honda Indy Toronto, and was fifth in the Honda Indy 200 at Mid-Ohio. But finishing outside of the top 10 in seven of 16 races shuffled him back in the points standings.

Setbacks aside, Hinchcliffe provided the feel-good story of the month of May when, one year after nearly losing his life in a practice crash, he won the Indy 500 pole. As much as “Dancing with the Stars” heightened his popularity after the season ended, the headlines from winning his first pole had the same effect. He led 27 laps but finished seventh, a microcosm of his “what might have been” season, although it was only one spot behind his previous best in five Indy 500 starts.

“I think we take a lot of pride in this year, to come back from everything last year and be competitive out of the gate,” he said. “We had a couple of rough events at the start of the season, one of them kind of our fault and one of them not. After that, it really picked up, the results started coming, Long Beach (eighth), Barber (sixth) and at the Indy Grand Prix (third) getting our first podium of the season, then the pole at the 500, we had a great month of May in general.”

Hinchcliffe is under contract to return for a third season with Schmidt, who sees his driver as the complete package.

“I’ve always believed that,” Schmidt said. “He drove for us in Indy Lights in 2009. We tried to get him earlier than we did, (but) he had the contract with Andretti. It’s all worked out pretty well. We can build a long-term program around him and a long-term program around Mikhail (Aleshin, whose deal for 2017 is not yet finalized) and keep on improving. 

“We’re still not perfect, but I think the guys are doing a hell of a job. We want to position ourselves in the offseason, fill in a couple of spots here and there, and legitimately go for the championship next year.”

Three of Hinchcliffe’s four career wins came in 2013 with Andretti Autosport. The fourth victory came at the 2015 Indy Grand Prix of Louisiana at NOLA Motorsports Park outside New Orleans. He’s run with one of the “Big Three” in Andretti Autosport for three seasons and competed against Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti for three years. His best points finish was eighth in back-to-back years with Andretti in 2012 and 2013.

He’s set his mind to being better than that.

“The pace that we’ve had and some of the weekends we’ve salvaged from subpar starts is what I’m really proud about,” he said. “I think it shows that we’re getting into position to start to begin contending for a championship.”

Hinchcliffe’s approachable demeanor makes him one of the series’ most popular drivers with the fans. And he comes by it honestly, just being himself. There’s no “dancing” around the bottom line that he’s a driver driven by an intensely competitive desire, but he’s ever mindful of the big picture, too.

“I’m a guy who appreciates where he is and what he gets to do and I enjoy every day of it. I think that shows. It resonates with people. They would kill to do what we do,” he said. “I’m a competitive person, I’ve been in this environment enough to know that when stuff is not going well, it’s real easy to look and act miserable because you’re a competitor, you’re aiming for something. And then people on the outside are looking in and saying, ‘Yeah, you had a bad day at the track, but you’re still an INDYCAR driver, what are you complaining about?’ It’s a delicate balance. 

“The competitor in you always wants to strive for the best out of yourself and your team. But every once in a while, you’ve got to remember that we’re all human and, in the grand scheme of humanity, we’ve got it pretty good.”