FONTANA, Calif. (September 16, 2012) – An exciting conclusion to the 2012 IndyCar Series season saw National Guard Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand dominate the MAV-TV American Real 500 early, until a bent tow-link forced untimely repairs at Auto Club Speedway. The Panther crew was able to battle back from four-laps down and just narrowly missed moving back into the Top Ten with an 11th-place finish. Hildebrand led a total of 56 laps, a career-high single-race total for the Californian, which was second only to eventual race-winner Ed Carpenter, who led 62 laps on the night.
“Obviously we got off to a killer start,” Hildebrand explained. “And the National Guard Chevy was really good those first couple stints.”
Hildebrand started a season-high fourth place and moved to the lead of the race by just the fifth lap of the event. The National Guard car remained in the lead through the first round of pit stops after the Panther crew made a great stop on Lap 36. After teams cycled through their stops, Hildebrand returned to the point on Lap 41. The first caution flag on Lap 56 for a crash involving Will Power sent nearly the entire field into pit lane, but again the Panther crew had a stellar stop that kept the No. 4 car in the lead out of pit lane.
On a Lap 65 restart Carpenter took the lead away from the National Guard team and as Hildebrand was chasing the No. 20 car he nearly lost control on the exit of Turn Two. Hildebrand regained control of his car, but his right-rear tire made contact with the wall, bending the tow-link, which brought out the second caution of the race.
“On the restart I was running high and had to pedal it while Ed (Carpenter) stayed flat and drove straight through,” JR explained. “I felt like I had the pace to get back by him, but just by the nature of the two lines we were running I was getting a lot of dirty air on the exit of the corners. I knew that if I could keep the pressure on him I could get back by, I could see that he was struggling a little bit, but I was the one that ended up getting caught out.”
The team quickly changed the suspension piece in pit lane, but it caused them to fall four laps behind the leader.
“Massively frustrating deal,” Hildebrand said. “I felt we had a car that was going to finish in the Top Five and I felt like we had a shot at winning this deal. I’m super frustrated for the team, cause we definitely rolled the dice with a couple things for this race and we had a chance to run up front all day.”
Despite being four laps down and falling all the way back to 21st position, the team and Hildebrand continued to battle in the race, eventually regaining two of its laps and nearly climbing back inside the Top Ten with its finishing position of 11th place.
“Once I got stuck a little further back, the car was still good in traffic, but then everybody else moved up on that top line,” JR continued. “We got a couple of our laps back, but obviously not enough to get back on the lead lap there by the end.”
Team Chevy captured both the IndyCar Championship (Ryan Hunter-Reay) and tonight’s race (Carpenter), and had already collected the manufacturers championship two weeks ago in the Baltimore Grand Prix. This was Chevrolet’s first year of competition in IndyCar since departing following 2005.