In what has been a challenging year for the fan-favorite driver, James Hinchcliffe is looking to end the 2021 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season on a high note.
Hinchcliffe, the 2017 winner at Long Beach, has produced strong speed all weekend and qualified seventh for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, live on NBCSN and INDYCAR Radio Network), just missing his first Firestone Fast Six appearance of the season with a best lap time of 1 minute, 8.7143 seconds.
Regardless, the top-10 starting position is Hinchcliffe’s best of the season driving for Andretti Steinbrenner Autosport. His previous best was ninth at Mid-Ohio.
Hinchcliffe attributes the speed to the team’s work in the shop.
“The Andretti Steinbrenner guys have done a great job,” Hinchcliffe said. “The car rolled off the truck pretty quick, and we haven’t had to make a lot of changes to it, which is nice in these shorter sessions and shorter weekends.”
The Canadian is the leading driver of Andretti Autosport’s four-car team, outqualifying teammates Ryan Hunter-Reay (11th), Colton Herta (14th) and Alexander Rossi (15th).
Hinchcliffe’s strong weekend is mirroring the performance he put together on the most recent street circuit, the inaugural Big Machine Music City Grand Prix in Nashville in August. Hinchcliffe qualified 10th and finished third, taking advantage of the four-car organization’s strong performance on street courses.
Leading into qualifying, Hinchcliffe proved to have one of the stronger cars this weekend in the No. 29 #ShiftToGreen Honda. He was eighth fastest in Friday’s lone practice session with a best lap time of 1:09.6276.
On Saturday, Hinchcliffe was the third-fastest driver of the morning practice with a best lap of 1:08.2250, making him the second-fastest Andretti Autosport driver of the session behind Herta.
All told, Hinchcliffe is flowing with confidence with a well-rounded weekend, and he thinks just minor tweaks can make he and his team a contender come Sunday.
“I think we have decent pace on blacks (primary tire) and reds (alternate tire),” he said. “It’s going to be about finding that little bit extra and putting it all together. So far, I’m cautiously optimistic. All our cars seem to be pretty quick.”
Like a handful of drivers in the paddock, speculation is swirling about Hinchcliffe’s racing destination in 2022. He reminded team owners this weekend he still has speed.
Dixon, Castroneves Fight To Round Out Top Three
Two longtime INDYCAR SERIES veterans found themselves battling for track position during the Firestone Fast Six, with one driver feeling his potential pole run was hampered while another was on cloud nine.
Six-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES champion Scott Dixon qualified second with a best lap of 1 minute, 8.4422 seconds, and four-time Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge winner Helio Castroneves was third at 1:08.4827.
However, Dixon ended the day frustrated with Castroneves, who he said interfered with his flyer lap and prevented a chance to win the NTT P1 Award.
“They dumped him right out in front of us, which for the first time lap the rolling was not so bad, but we definitely got on top of him on the last one,” Dixon said. “In scenarios like that, you’re definitely losing three-, four-, five-tenths, and we only needed a couple. We were definitely up until we got to him, especially on the last half of the track.
“It’s a bummer. I really think we had the pole there. The car is fantastic.”
Still, the second-place start is Dixon’s best start since he lined up second in early August at Nashville. It is Dixon’s fourth time in the Firestone Fast Six in the second half of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, with other appearances coming at Mid-Ohio, Nashville and Portland.
Castroneves, on the other hand, said he didn’t believe he was in Dixon’s way. Instead, he wondered aloud if Dixon misunderstood the distance between Castroneves’ No. 06 Meyer Shank Racing Honda and Dixon’s No. 9 PNC Bank Grow Up Great Honda.
“I guess he’s so used to starting in the front that when he sees somebody miles away, he might say, ‘Oh, my God, he’s in front of me,’” Castroneves said. “There was no way. I had hot tires; I was full power. I think he misjudged the perception of what it was. I was in total control. There was no way in hell that we were in front of anybody.”
2001 Long Beach winner Castroneves produced his best qualifying effort of the season, making his first Firestone Fast Six appearance of 2021. His previous best start of the season was eighth in May’s Indy 500.
Castroneves was elated for his Meyer Shank Racing team, with which he has run part-time this season and will embark on a full-time tour with in 2022.
The group has spent its six-race 2021 season experimenting on setups and honing on details for next season, and Castroneves said the Long Beach qualifying effort is proof the hard work is paying off.
“It’s part of the process,” Castroneves said. “A lot of people sometimes don’t see it that way. We are in a luxury position where we can spend those six races preparing, and this is exactly what happens. You try to understand. It changed so much from what I used to do.
“I love this place, too. When you combine a lot of things together, it helps. No question, today was an incredible day. We just keep increasing and improving. I thought I had it, to be honest.
Johnson Living Childhood Dream in Long Beach
The end to Jimmie Johnson’s first season in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES comes at a racetrack where he’s dreamed of racing his entire life: Long Beach.
Johnson, from El Cajon, California, grew up coming to the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach and envisioned himself racing on the iconic Southern California streets. But Johnson’s off-road truck racing path led him to NASCAR, not the NTT INDYCAR SERIES.
Johnson said he is grateful for all that his NASCAR career provided him in the form of 83 career wins and seven NASCAR Cup Series championships. But there was always something missing.
This weekend, Johnson has found that thing at the place he hasn’t been two in more than two decades, the place where he used to cheer Al Unser Jr. to victory.
“To walk around here, I literally haven’t been here since 1995,” Johnson said. “It’s been a while. But to have some of those memories come back while walking over the pedestrian bridge, walking around the paddock.
“There’s been some really cool moments looking around and kind of shaking my head that I did finally end up here. I wasn’t sure it was going to happen, so I feel very grateful. And I’m just excited that it’s been able to come to fruition.”
Johnson is coming off a career-best weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where he finished 17th in the No. 48 Carvana Chip Ganassi Racing Honda. At Long Beach, he’s had mixed success, but he’s been more on pace with the leaders than he was earlier this season.
Johnson was 27th fastest in the first practice after two spins and was 28th in the second practice. Johnson qualified 27th with a best lap of 1 minute, 10.5127 seconds.
The box score might not compare to Johnson’s stellar performance in Northern California last weekend, which was a permanent road course, but Johnson said he is starting to feel comfortable on street circuits. And believe it or not, he thinks it’s all thanks to Nashville, where he admits he struggled.
“It’s all building, although many things are different here than we had last weekend,” Johnson said. “If I look back to the last street course and this tire, although statistically Nashville looked like a train wreck for me, it really was the start of a lot of confidence coming in for me.
“Just a bit of aggression at the wrong times caught me out, and I had a poor performance. I’m excited to get back on a street course and wrestle this car around.”
Odds and Ends:
- The stars were out today in Long Beach, just down the road from Hollywood. Celebrities spotted at the track today included Sheri Easterling and Monty Lopez, social influencers and the parents of singer and social media personality Addison Rae.
- Also taking in the NTT INDYCAR SERIES action was X-Games Gold Medalist and Olympic skateboarder Leticia Bufoni, who got a ride around the circuit in the INDYCAR SERIES two-seater car.
- Ed Jones continued his strong end to the 2021 season by qualifying ninth for the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. It backs up qualifying efforts of eighth and 14th, respectively in the last two weeks in the No. 18 SealMaster Honda.
- Callum Ilott, who will embark on a full-time NTT INDYCAR SERIES season with Juncos Hollinger Racing in 2022, qualified 18th in the No. 77 Chevrolet. It’s his best start of his three 2021 races with the team, coming at a track where he expected to struggle because he has never raced on concrete.
- The battle for the Rookie of the Year award will take an interesting turn when the green flag waves Sunday. Leader Scott McLaughlin will start 13th in the No. 3 PPG Team Penske Chevrolet, while Romain Grosjean, who is 20 points behind, starts sixth in the No. 51 Nurtec ODT Honda.
- The Streets of Long Beach circuit is proving to be tough on NTT INDYCAR SERIES athletes. Drivers that spun, went off track, made contact with the wall or had big moments in Saturday’s practice session included Romain Grosjean, Scott McLaughlin, Colton Herta, James Hinchcliffe, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves, Rinus VeeKay, Scott Dixon, Pato O’Ward and Alex Palou.
- Qualifying also proved to be challenging for the drivers as they went all-out for the best possible starting position. Jack Harvey lost control of his car and hit the tire barrier, and Will Power slid into him. Colton Herta hit the wall multiple times to ruin his chances of winning his fourth pole of the season, while Romain Grosjean made light contact with the wall.