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Resilient Hinchcliffe Takes Dramatic Lead Once Again in Indy Qualifying

If anyone understands what it’s like to be the center of dramatic attention at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s James Hinchcliffe. Now here we go again.

An early qualifying crash, then three unsuccessful runs in a backup car earned the popular Canadian what should be an eventful Sunday as he joins two-time Formula One World Champion Fernando Alonso among others in Last Row Shootout qualifying for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

A year after the humbled “Hinch” failed to qualify for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” he will desperately try to prevent history from repeating itself. The driver of the No. 5 Arrow Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda must prove himself worthy of one of three final spots in an all-important, four-lap qualifying run Sunday.

“Yeah, it’s old hat for me, man,” Hinchcliffe said with a shrug after a final-hour qualifying bid wasn’t quick enough.

His IMS history obviously goes beyond just the last two years. He survived life-threatening injuries in a 2015 practice crash, then returned to win the pole the next year in one of the more inspiring qualifying comebacks in recent memory.

Yeah, never a dull moment, man.

“That’s Indy,” he said. “I don’t think Indy is ever dull for anybody. There’s always something exciting happening here. It’s always challenging everybody in a bunch of different ways. We’ve got to come out tomorrow and put our best foot forward.”

He accentuated the positive of a new qualifying format that afforded him a final chance Sunday.

“A year ago today, our month was done,” he said. “So it’s nice to know we have one more shot at it.”

The way his Saturday began, that didn’t seem a certainty as his car lost control and spun into the Turn 2 wall in a nasty crash. Hinchcliffe’s 35-year-old brother, Chris, watching in the team pit box, couldn’t help but be worried when 32-year-old James didn’t climb out of the car immediately.

“I had never experienced being at the track and then having to wait for him to get out of the car like today,” Chris said. “(James’ fiancee) Rebecca (Dalton) can’t even look at the screen. We hear everybody’s gasps.

“We’re looking up at that screen. We’re waiting. We’re waiting for him to get out of the car. Usually they pop out and they’re fine. I’m thinking back to his (2015) wreck. I’m thinking back to Robby Wickens’ wreck. When it takes more than 10 seconds to get a driver out of the car, all of a sudden, your mind is spinning.”

Hinchcliffe eventually climbed from the car with minimal assistance. Then his family waited for what Chris said seemed like an eternity at the infield IU Health Emergency Medical Center. Drivers Tony Kanaan and Jack Harvey visited to check on their friend.

After five minutes, a doctor gave everyone the news that Hinchcliffe was OK.

“You just need to hear that,” Chris said. “Now those of us waiting need a check-up, thank you very much.”

As he was sitting there, Chris recalled reading a statistic about how race car drivers are among the fittest athletes based on how their heart rate returns to normal.

“We’re not like them. Our heart rates are still way up high right then,” Chris said. “But then James went right back to work.”

His team hurriedly prepared a backup road-course car that enabled Hinchcliffe to make three qualifying runs. But each time, he wasn’t quick enough to crack the top 30.

“We would love just to see one smooth weekend, let alone a smooth month of May,” Chris said. “At this point, I would just like to see one weekend without any hitches. I certainly didn’t need another heart attack like this morning.”

Hinchcliffe’s best “500” finish in six starts was sixth place in 2012 while driving for Andretti Autosport. He ended up seventh in 2016, the year he won the pole. Considering he’s also qualified second twice and was in the first three rows for another start, this most recent adversity is a bit of a head scratcher.

After suffering last year’s ignominious fate as the only full-time driver to not make the field in a race which cost him double points, Hinchcliffe rebounded with a strong stretch that included a win at Iowa to finish 10th in the NTT IndyCar Series points. It’s the best he’s finished in the points since a career-best eighth in 2012 and 2013 with Andretti Autosport. He’s 10th in the points entering Sunday.

“I like the drama,” Chris said. “I don’t always like that James is at the center of it.

“For most of my life, I tried to be a philosophy professor, and I drove a Prius. I tell you I’ve studied hundreds of philosophers, all of whom have brilliant words to say about overcoming adversity, but I still take my example from James. I’m a firm believer that there’s wisdom you get from study and there’s wisdom you get from experience.”

That explains how the resilient Hinchcliffe could handle yet another adverse experience with such poise. He spoke with confidence about how his crew would “rub on” the car overnight to have it ready for Sunday.

Everyone knows by now that Hinchcliffe is too familiar with the highs and lows of Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

When asked if he has a love-hate relationship with the place, he shook his head.

“No, I still love it,” Hinchcliffe said, “as much as it tries to kick me when I’m down.”

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