LONG BEACH, California (Sunday, April 9, 2017) - James Hinchcliffe is all the way back now.
The Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver, seriously injured in an Indianapolis 500 practice crash nearly two years ago, recorded his first Verizon IndyCar Series win since the incident by taking the checkered flag at the prestigious Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach. Driving the No. 5 Arrow Honda, Hinchcliffe crossed the finish line 1.4940 seconds ahead of Dale Coyne Racing's Sebastien Bourdais, the winner of last month's season opener.
Hinchcliffe's last win came at NOLA Motorsports Park in April 2015, a month before the crash caused when a suspension piece on the car broke at 220-plus mph on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval. Hinchcliffe returned to racing last season and captured the Indianapolis 500 pole position, but had yet to win another race until today.
"To finally do what was goal No. 1 when we set out at the start of the season, to get back into winner's circle, to do so as early in the season as we have, as convincingly as we did, was great," said Hinchcliffe, who recorded the fifth victory of his seven-year Verizon IndyCar Series career.
The Canadian and "Dancing with the Stars" Season 23 runner-up took the lead for good on the 63rd of 85 laps around the 1.968-mile, 11-turn temporary street circuit that hosted Indy cars for the 34th consecutive year. A full-course caution on the same lap to tow in the disabled car of Alexander Rossi helped Hinchcliffe save enough Sunoco E85R fuel to make it to the end and he held off Bourdais in a three-lap dash to the finish following another yellow when Ryan Hunter-Reay, who had been running second, stopped on course with an electrical issue.
"After Indy and personally me for Toronto, this is the biggest one to win," Hinchcliffe said. "I've had a lot of luck here. We've been really quick here in the past and to finally get to victory lane here is more than I can put into words.
"This place has a lot of history, that's what drivers really care about. The greatest of the greats have won here. Toronto, Indy and this place were on my bucket list to win before I die, and it's nice to check one off."
Bourdais, driving the No. 18 Trench Shoring Honda, recovered from rear wing damage sustained from debris when the cars of Graham Rahal and Charlie Kimball made contact on Lap 1. Coupled with his win March 12 in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, it gave Bourdais a 19-point lead over Hinchcliffe in the championship after two of 17 races.
"The fuel saving we could achieve today with the performance we had on the Honda was amazing," said Bourdais, the four-time Indy car champion who won three straight Long Beach races from 2005-07. "I've always been pretty comfortable saving fuel and that one sort of came to us today."
Josef Newgarden finished third in the No. 2 Verizon Chevrolet, earning his best Long Beach result and first top-three finish since joining Team Penske this season.
"It's always good to get the first podium out of the way for the Captain," Newgarden said of team owner Roger Penske. "It was a pleasure to drive this weekend. Verizon gives us great tools at Team Penske. It's nice to get this one out of the way. Hopefully now we can hunt down some wins."
Last year's Long Beach winner and Verizon IndyCar Series champion, Team Penske's Simon Pagenaud, charged from last on the 21-car starting grid to finish fifth. Bourdais' teammate at Dale Coyne Racing, Ed Jones, placed sixth to notch his second straight top-10 finish to start his rookie season.
Last-lap contact between Mikhail Aleshin and JR Hildebrand sent Hildebrand's No. 21 Preferred Freezer Services Chevrolet into the Turn 1 tire barrier. According to INDYCAR Medical Director Dr. Geoffrey Billows, the Ed Carpenter Racing driver sustained a broken bone in his left hand, was not cleared to drive and will be re-evaluated later this week. Aleshin was penalized by INDYCAR for blocking and moved back one position in the final results to 12th place.
"I was making a move on Mikhail Aleshin and I could tell he was struggling," Hildebrand said. "I was out of push-to-pass so I was trying to make a proper, full-out pass down the front straightaway. He had been starting to move over, not a major blocking maneuver but enough to assert his line. He hit the brake a lot earlier than I was expecting and I ended up running into the back of him.
"In doing so, it ripped the steering wheel from my hand and I ended up tweaking (the hand). ... Hopefully I can get back to it here before the next race."
The next event on the Verizon IndyCar Series schedule is the Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama from the Barber Motorsports Park 2.3-mile permanent road course in Birmingham, Alabama. The April 23 race airs live at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network.