Hildebrand eager to make another strong 500 showing

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For the Daily Reporter

INDIANAPOLIS — To the casual or even avid race fan, the Indianapolis 500 might seem like unfinished business for IndyCar driver J.R. Hildebrand.

After all, it was unfinished business for several drivers throughout the 100-plus years of the most famous race in the world.

Drivers like Lloyd Ruby, Gary Bettenhausen, Eddie Sachs and Michael Andretti have had victory in their grasps, only to lose it due to a variety of reasons.

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So has Hildebrand, who was one corner away from taking the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a rookie when he hit the wall in Turn 4.

But it’s not unfinished business for Hildebrand.

“I don’t look at it that way, really,” he said. “This place (Indianapolis Motor Speedway) doesn’t owe you anything.”

Hildebrand, then driving for Panther Racing, took the lead with two laps to go when leader Dario Franchitti was running low on fuel. Hildebrand himself was nursing a car very low on fuel and it appeared he had enough to stretch it out for a shock win; however, on the final turn of the final lap, Hildebrand went high to pass a slower car, drifted up into the marbles in turn four and smacked the outside wall.

Englishman Dan Wheldon, who was running second a few seconds behind, was the benefactor. He took the lead and won his second 500 race, while Hildebrand’s damaged car slid with enough power — and three wheels past the finish line — to take second and take the Rookie of the Year award.

But unlike Ruby, Bettenhausen, Sachs and Andretti, Hildebrand can still revise history with a win and at least turn that 2011 race into a footnote in his personal stats.

Don’t bet against him.

Hildebrand will be driving in Sunday’s 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, and for the second straight year he will race for Greenwood businessman Dennis Reinbold’s Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.

He’ll be in the No. 48 Salesforce/DRR Chevrolet Dallara. And once again, Hildebrand will be teaming with Sage Karam.

“I’m very pleased to bring back J.R. to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway again this year,” Reinbold said. “Last year, we expanded to two cars with J.R. and Sage (Karam), and the combination worked very well. J.R.’s experience at Indy brings our team a lot of background to develop the cars quickly in practice and prepare for qualifying.”

It’s that experience that Hildebrand will focus on to try and win.

Aside from his second-place slide across the finish line, Hildebrand has three other top 10 finishes, all consecutive from 2014-16.

So, it’s no surprise Hildebrand is back.

“Last year, we had a great relationship with Dennis’ DRR team in our initial Indy 500 effort,” Hildebrand said. “I started my IndyCar career with Dennis back in 2010 when he brought me up to the big leagues in IndyCar Racing. We have always had a great rapport over the years. I have always been impressed with the speed in the race of the DRR team.”

Unfortunately for Hildebrand, Reinbold is usually an Indy-only effort — which means unless either sponsorship or another team comes a-calling, Hildebrand is on the sidelines.

Hildebrand is philosophical about it, knowing that sometimes standing still while others fly by is part of the business of racing.

There have been times where he’s done a few road races and Indy in a season, and others where it’s Indy only.

“It has its pros and cons,” Hildebrand said. “You’re not quite as fresh as everybody else in terms of the speed and the pace, pit stops, things like that. You have a little bit of a learning curve that the other guys don’t have.”

Hildebrand says, though, that a positive is he is strictly focused on this one event and doesn’t have the distraction of the rest of the season.

He knows he can compete with anyone given the chance, and winning the 500 or even just a top-five finish can help.

“You would deserve to be among the other dudes who are racing full-time,” said Hildebrand. “It’s a bummer because you would like to be running full-time and doing all kinds of different stuff. It’s not always how it shakes out.”

For this month at least, it’s Hildebrand who had things shake out, and he has already shaken down the car with several laps in practice and of course the important four for qualifying.

And he fancies his chances for a great result, maybe even a win.

“There were years I was genuinely in the hunt to win,” said Hildebrand. “My focus has been on my experience. That’s become my focus and we’re definitely optimistic we’ll be in the hunt for sure.

“We think we can compete with the best of anybody.”

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Name: John Randal (J.R.) Hildebrand Jr.

Born: Jan. 3, 1988 in San Francisco

Hometown: Sausalito, Calif.

Residence: Boulder, Colo.

Height: 6-0

Weight: 160 lbs.

Wife: Kristin

Website: www.jrhildebrandracing.com

IndyCar history

IndyCar starts: 62

Indy 500 starts: 8

First Indy 500 start: 2011

Best finish: Second (2011)

Career accomplishments

2004 SCCA Formula Russell champion (7 wins)

2006 U.S. Formula Ford 200 champion (12 wins)

2009 Indy Lights champion (4 wins)

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