INDIANAPOLIS – Robert Wickens entered the 102nd Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil as one of four rookies in the race.
He emerged best in class. After finishing ninth in Sunday’s race, the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was officially bestowed Sunoco Rookie of the Year honors Monday evening at the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration.
It was quite a turnaround for Wickens, who crashed in the No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda during practice on May 21, six days before the race. His crew repaired the car and the Canadian rose from the 18th starting position to the top-10 finish in his Indy 500 debut.
“In some ways, I was hoping for more,” Wickens said. “In other ways, it surpassed everything I ever could have imagined.”
The Indy 500 was only Wickens’ second oval start, coming after his second-place result at ISM Raceway in April. He had never even attended the Indy 500 before coming to the race this year as a competitor.
Much like in that Arizona surprise, Wickens proved his mettle throughout his first Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval experience.
The new universal aero kit and the second-hottest race day in recorded Indy 500 history combined to spell trouble for numerous drivers in the field -- veterans Helio Castroneves, Danica Patrick and Tony Kanaan among them. But Wickens maintained his pace and kept his car clean.
After a failed off-sequence pit strategy forced his SPM crew to bring him to pit road following the last caution on Lap 189, the former European touring car ace drove from 19th to ninth in the final eight laps. While half those positions gained were the benefit of cars ahead of him making final pit stops, Wickens made five on-track passes for position in the last eight laps.
“Honestly, it was an amazing 10 laps,” he said. “If it wasn't for those 10 laps, I'd probably be pretty bummed with my first Indy 500. Passing (that many cars) was something pretty special.”
The run continued a strong season for the 29-year-old, serving as his fourth top-10 in six Verizon IndyCar Series starts. It also helped ease fears of a letdown from SPM after lead driver James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the event.
“I feel like we never lost momentum,” Wickens said. “That's the big thing. We're such a strong team.
“I think we understand what happened on the (No.) 5 car. I think lesson learned. Things are implemented now that will never happen again.”
While he wasn’t in the race, Hinchcliffe came to the Brickyard on Sunday to support teammates Wickens, Jay Howard and Jack Harvey. The 100th Indianapolis 500 pole sitter was in Wickens’ pit for most of the race, offering support and wisdom when needed.
“Having (Hinchcliffe) there, I mean, he's probably the most supportive teammate you could ever ask for,” Wickens said. “Even before the race, I was picking his brain, asking how it is on the outside right off the start. He was kind of telling me the dos and don'ts, some last-minute words of wisdom.
“It helped me a lot. Gave me that little bit of extra confidence to sail it around the outside on Turn 1 on the start.”
Wickens leaves his impressive first month of May sitting seventh in the Verizon IndyCar Series standings. He finished third in the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS road course on May 12, and followed it with the ninth-place effort in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
The series heads to the Motor City this week for the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear doubleheader on the Belle Isle temporary street circuit. One race takes place each on Saturday and Sunday, with both airing live starting at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.