LONG BEACH, Calif. - (April 15, 2012) – National Guard Panther Racing driver JR Hildebrand scored his first Top Five finish of the season Sunday in the Grand Prix of Long Beach, where the Californian drove from his 20th-place starting position to fifth place. The result is Hildebrand’s first Top Five finish of the young IZOD IndyCar Series season, and vaults the National Guard team into the 10th position (from 19th) in the championship standings.
″I’m pumped for the Panther Racing National Guard guys,” Hildebrand said after. “We had our own trials and tribulations throughout this weekend so far, with the penalty and I slapped the wall in qualifying and screwed up our starting spot anyway. The car was really good, the guys made some changes this morning and it really livened the car up and we had great traction all day.”
Panther utilized a two-stop strategy on Sunday, and after starting in 20th Hildebrand moved quickly to the 16th position before a caution flag on Lap 20 for contact involving Sebastian Bourdais. The team did not pit under the first caution, but when the yellow flew again shortly there after – on Lap 23 for contact involving multiple cars – Hildebrand dove into the pits for his first stop of the day. The team restarted in 10th position and JR was quickly up to eighth position as multiple strategies amongst the field began to play out.
Hildebrand climbed as high as second place before making his final pit stop on Lap 56, and while he had enough fuel to make it to the end of the race, he had to manage his fuel mileage for the final stint. He reached as high as fourth position with just five laps remaining in the race, but with his pace decreased in an effort to conserve fuel to the end, he was passed by Ryan Hunter-Reay, James Hinchcliffe and Tony Kanaan in the closing laps. At the conclusion of the race Hunter-Reay was assessed a 30-second penalty for avoidable contact, which moved Hildebrand into the fifth position.
“The guys picked a two-stop strategy and we had really good pit stops and I ended up having to save more fuel at the end of the race than some of the guys around us and we lost a couple spots,” Hildebrand explained. “But we’re just stoked to be able to come from that far back through some on-track passes and good strategy.”
Despite all Chevrolet-powered cars having to serve a 10-spot grid penalty for an unapproved engine change, Team Chevy captured the victory (Will Power) and a total of six of the top seven positions in the final finishing order. Chevrolet-powered cars have captured all three pole positions and race victories thus far in the IndyCar Series season.
For Hildebrand this was his third career Top Five and sixth Top Ten finish in 22 career IndyCar Series starts. Panther has captured two Top Five and three Top Ten finishes in its four career starts in Long Beach and today’s effort matches the team’s best finish – a fifth-place finish in 2009.
“And what a great job by Team Chevy after we had to make an engine change,” JR concluded.”We’ll take this and move on to Brazil.”
The IndyCar Series will be off next weekend before traveling out of the country for the Sao Paulo Indy 300, which will be broadcast on NBC Sports Network in two weeks (April 29th), with additional coverage provided by the IMS Radio Network, XM Channel 94 and Sirius Channel 212. Practice, qualifying and race coverage is also available on the new IndyCar Mobile app from Verizon.