New year, same Indy 500 qualifying drama for Hinchcliffe

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INDIANAPOLIS – 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 NTT IndyCar Series driver what should be an eventful Sunday as he joins two-time Formula 1 Fernando Alonso and four others in Last Row Shootout qualifying for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

A year after the humbled Hinchcliffe 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 at the back of the 33-car grid 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 comebacks in recent memory.

Never a dull moment, indeed.

James Hinchcliffe in car talking with crewman“That’s Indy,” Hinchcliffe said Saturday. “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 SAFER Barrier 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. “Rebecca (Dalton, James’ fiancée) 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 checkup, thank you very much.”

Hinchcliffe’s team hurriedly prepared a backup road-course car that enabled Hinchcliffe to make three late qualifying runs without the benefit of any practice laps. 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 Indy 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 Speedway to finish 10th in the NTT IndyCar Series points. It’s the best he’s finished in the championship since a career-best eighth in 2012 and 2013 with Andretti Autosport. He’s 10th in points again entering Sunday.

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

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.”

Hinchcliffe will be among the six Last Row Shootout drivers participating in a 30-minute practice that begins at 10:15 a.m. ET Sunday, followed by a 30-minute practice for the Fast Nine Shootout competitors. Both stream live on INDYCAR Pass on NBC Sports Gold.

NBC will broadcast the two shootouts live from noon-3 p.m. The battle for the last row is scheduled for 12:15 p.m. and the fast nine at 1:15.

Then, a practice for the 33 qualifiers airs on NBCSN from 3-6 p.m. NBC coverage of the 103rd Indianapolis 500 begins at 11 a.m. Sunday, May 26.

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