Another strong run yields second at Phoenix for Wickens

(via – For the second consecutive race, rookie Robert Wickens was at the center of another late restart and in the hunt for victory. This time, he managed to bring it home to score a second-place finish in the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix.

Although the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver was making his first oval start, he managed to impress and navigated his way from sixth on the starting grid to lead 44 of the 250 laps Saturday night at ISM Raceway.

With 22 laps to go, Wickens was running a comfortable third behind race leader Josef Newgarden and Ed Jones. The turning point of the race came on the following lap when Jones’ No. 10 NTT DATA Honda hit the Turn 4 SAFER Barrier and brought out a caution flag. Newgarden pitted for fresh tires, along with the majority of the field, but Wickens elected to stay out and gambled along with teammate James Hinchcliffe and Andretti Autosport’s Alexander Rossi. Ironically, it was Rossi who collided with Wickens on the final restart at the season opener in St. Petersburg, Florida, knocking Wickens out of the race when he was leading.

Newgarden restarted the Phoenix race in fourth place on Lap 243, but zoomed around Hinchcliffe and Rossi immediately into second place. Wickens quickly found the mirrors on his No. 6 Lucas Oil SPM Honda full of Newgarden’s silver No. 1 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet. The pit stop for new tires paid off for Newgarden, who passed Wickens on Lap 247 and drove on to a comfortable win.

Wickens was still very pleased with his runner-up showing.

“It means a lot,” the 29-year-old Canadian said. “My goal coming into this (weekend) was to finish every lap. Even on that last restart, leading, knowing there is only the three of us that stayed out, my thought process didn’t really change.

“Even if I finished fifth, I would have been a little bit disappointed but still happy that I got even a top-five on my first oval race. I feel like I’m setting the bar a little bit high for myself, but I never would have expected the first two races to go as well as they did. Hopefully we can get our season going now.”

As it stands, Wickens has led 113 of the 360 laps through the first two races of the season and sits eighth in the championship standings, 20 points behind leader Newgarden.

Despite the impressive start, he is still tempering his expectations for the remaining 15 races.

“I’m still going day by day,” said Wickens. “We’re gelling right now, I guess, at Schmidt Peterson Motorsports. By no means, I can’t expect this throughout the season. I think it’s going better than anyone expected, better than I expected.

“But nevertheless, we’re just going to keep doing the job that we’re doing. Like I said, take it day by day. (In) motorsports, things can turn so quickly, you just have to do the best job you can each day. Sometimes that’s a podium, sometimes that’s a 10th, sometimes you can’t even crack the top 10.

“We just have to take what’s given to us and go from there.”

Teammate Hinchcliffe managed to lead 20 laps Saturday before fading on the last restart to finish sixth. Combined with his fourth-place effort in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 11, it has the driver of the No. 5 Arrow Electronics SPM Honda sitting sixth in the standings. However, even after strong performances on two different track disciplines – street circuit and short oval – the 31-year-old Canadian isn’t ready to anoint his team as a championship contender.

“We got two out of four,” said Hinchcliffe, who readies for the next round as the defending race winner of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, set for this Sunday (4 p.m. ET, NBCSN and Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network).

“We’ve still got a road course and a superspeedway to try, but we’ll see. Between short ovals and street circuits, that’s half the calendar and Detroit is a doubleheader. Who knows, St. Pete was one race, it was everybody’s first race. We can’t be too confident going into Long Beach.

“There are a lot of great cars and there is still a lot for us to learn. But as a team, considering how much we had to overcome in the offseason with new people, dealing with the new car, coming off the back of being one of the (Honda) development teams, we didn’t get much of an offseason to regroup, refocus and get everybody integrated. So honestly, I just can’t say enough about the team and all the guys and girl at the shop.”

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