IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens returns to Road America

GENARO C. ARMAS (AP Sports Writer)
The Associated Press
FILE - In this May 21, 2018 file photo Robert Wickens, of Canada, waits in the pits before a practice session for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis. Wickens is returning to Road America with a full-time ride a year after taking his first IndyCar spin there as a substitute driver. The Schmidt Peterson racer is looking forward to the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at the 14-turn road course. Wickens was just subbing for one day of practice last year. Now an IndyCar rookie, Wickens is seventh in the points race heading into Sundays race. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, file)

IndyCar rookie Robert Wickens returns to Road America

FILE - In this May 21, 2018 file photo Robert Wickens, of Canada, waits in the pits before a practice session for the IndyCar Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in Indianapolis. Wickens is returning to Road America with a full-time ride a year after taking his first IndyCar spin there as a substitute driver. The Schmidt Peterson racer is looking forward to the Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday at the 14-turn road course. Wickens was just subbing for one day of practice last year. Now an IndyCar rookie, Wickens is seventh in the points race heading into Sundays race. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, file)

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (AP) -- Robert Wickens emerged from his trailer after a meeting with engineers, taking a brief break after practice at Road America.

Finally, the IndyCar rookie has to get ready for a race at the rural Wisconsin road course.

Wickens is off to an impressive start this weekend at Road America, a year after taking his first IndyCar spin around the 4-mile track as a substitute driver for Mikhail Aleshin for one day of practice.

Now the Canadian, a former DTM star, has the full-time IndyCar ride. He'll stay in the driver's seat of the No. 6 car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports for the 222-mile Kohler Grand Prix on Sunday.

''When I drove the free practice here last year ... this was just kind of a (check off) a bucket-list item, driving IndyCar on one of the best tracks in America,'' Wickens said Saturday.

''A year later, I'm a full-time IndyCar driver,'' he added. ''This is a new car, it's a new season and so far it's going well.''

Wickens will start fifth on Sunday, building on top-five finishes in all three practice rounds at Road America this weekend.

It helps that Wickens feels comfortable on road courses. He put up impressive times this weekend at Road America despite not actually racing at the course since 2007.

''I'm at home a road course. I can jump into this IndyCar and I'm confident right away I can be quick,'' he said as crew members worked on the car in the garage after practice.

Still, a year ago, he held back while subbing for Aleshin. The Russian driver had brief troubles returning to the United States after the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

''Because if you put it all on the line and you crash,'' Wickens said, ''you look like that idiot who crashed when you were just reserving for someone else.''

Back then, Wickens said he was happy driving in Europe in DTM with Mercedes-AMG Motorsport. But he made the move to IndyCar this year after Mercedes said it was pulling out of the series.

Wickens grew up with fellow Schmidt driver James Hinchcliffe, who recommended Wickens in the first place to fill in last year for Aleshin. Wickens and Hinchcliffe were karting teammates as teens in Canada.

Hinchcliffe said he tried to ''sit back'' and let team members come to their own conclusions about Wickens.

''What I didn't want to happen is I didn't want people to think I was trying to get my buddy in the seat,'' Hinchcliffe said. ''If you looked at everything on paper, the facts were this is the best available guy in the world for this car ... I wanted them to figure it on out on own rather than just hammer it in.''

Wickens is making Hinchcliffe look good. The rookie is seventh in the driver standings, 113 points behind leader Scott Dixon going into the Road America.

''Yeah, it's really fun saying, I told you so,'' Hinchcliffe said Friday with a laugh.

Wickens started at the pole in his debut race at St. Petersburg, but he finished 18th despite leading 69 of 110 laps. Wickens had a win in sights until two late cautions set up NASCAR-style late restarts. Contact with Alexander Rossi on the final restart sent Wickens off course, and Sebastien Bourdais went on to take the checkered flag. Wickens finished 18th.

Otherwise, Wickens has finished in the top 10 six times this year, including two top-three finishes. His best starting positions have come on road courses, including only his pole start at St. Pete, and second-place starts at the IndyCar Grand Prix and Belle Isle.

''I think the timing was right. Happy to be a part of it,'' Wickens said. ''Even more, I'm happy that the results are coming in the first year.''

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