J.R. Hildebrand burst onto the scene in 2011 by almost winning the Indianapolis 500. Well, if improving every time out to start the 2012 season is any indication, the Chevrolet-powered Panther Racing #4 should be one of the cars to beat in 2012.
By anyone's account, Hildebrand should have won the Indy 500 last year but a freak occurrence in turn 4, right before the checkered flag, sent him into the wall; allowing the late Dan Wheldon, who was several seconds behind, able to take the win. A heartbreaking loss to say the least (YouTube).
A stutter to the start
The 2012 season started with new cars for everyone but it seemed the National Guard sponsored one-car team at Panther wasn't quite ready. Although they were contented with their speeds, they qualified in the back half of the field - but after running competitively all day and inside the Top 10, a bad pit stop and fuel pressure issues ruined the day (they ended 19th).
Then in Birmingham at Barber Motorsports Park, Hildebrand found enough speed to qualify fifth, his best ever on a non-oval track. Once again, the team was competitive and in the Top 10 near the finish when a bad restart after a caution pushed Hildebrand back to a 15th place spot at the end. Then at Long Beach, after being penalized 10 grid positions due to Chevy ordering all the engines to be replaced (see related articles), Hildebrand worked his way back up (from a 20th starting spot) to the front on fuel strategy to post a fifth place, by far his best ever non-oval finish (source - Paddock Talk).
Last week at Sao Paulo, Brazil, after a so-so qualifying effort that left him starting on the seventh row, Hildebrand worked his way back up into the Top 10 and stayed there until the checkered flag flew, collecting seventh place. And seventh is where the 24 year old Californian now sits, heading into the month of May and Indy.
Hildebrand looks more and more comfortable all the time and the team seems poised to put #4 back to the front again when they run at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's been a decade since Panther Racing has been this high in the point standings heading into the Indy 500.
Penske Racing seems to be the cars to beat right now and of course, Ganassi is always there when it matters but the Panther team and driver look ready to tackle Indianapolis. So don't be surprised if Hildebrand gets turn four right this time and wins the 'Greatest Spectacle in Racing'.
Sources - IndyCar, Panther Racing
Daryle has been involved in motorsports most of his life and has three decades of experience inside racemarketing, plus for several years has blogged about every type of racing.