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Long Beach Grand Prix defending champ James Hinchcliffe takes aim at repeat

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(via Redlands Daily Facts) – No driver in the Verizon IndyCar Series paddock will feel more pressure or have as much confidence for the 44th Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach than veteran James Hinchcliffe.

But the Canadian, who won here last season, will try to balance both of those emotions as he attempts to become the event’s first repeat winner since 2007 when Sebastien Bourdais completed a three-peat for Newman-Haas Racing.

The third event of the Version IndyCar Series begins Friday with two practice sessions at 10 a.m and 2 p.m. Qualifying is scheduled for 3:30 pm. Saturday with the 85-lap race set for 1:40 p.m Sunday.

Hinchcliffe, who is one of IndyCar’s biggest personalities, held a press conference Wednesday at the Aquarium of the Pacific putting on SCUBA gear for the occasion. “There’s definitely a bit of heightened expectation internally, knowing, ‘Hey, we’ve been here before, we’ve run well, we’ve won here.’ But we have to do it again; we have to prove it wasn’t a fluke. That comes with an expectation.

“But at the same time, you have the confidence knowing that you can do it. Last year’s win wasn’t the lucky yellow flag or anything like that. We qualified up front, we ran well, we had good pitstops. We deserved to win. Knowing that, it gives you confidence that you can do it again.”

It was also a special win for Hinchcliffe. It was the Schmidt Peterson Motorsports driver’s first victory since a horrific practice crash at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2015.

“It was pretty special, for sure,” Hinchcliffe said. “It was a validation of all the hard work that had gone on during the 18 months since the accident and prove we could still do it. To do it here, of all places. After Indy, this is the longest running event. It’s the best attended event after Indy.

“I think for a lot of drivers (who would say that) after Indy, it’s the race you want to win the most, so to knock off a win here is kind of a bucket list deal. To have it be the first win after the accident made it extra special.”

Now, he wants to be the first repeat winner in more than a decade, and the odds may be in the veteran’s favor. He’s looked solid during the first two races of the season, placing fourth at the season opener in St. Petersburg (Florida) in March and sixth last weekend in Phoenix, where he was running second late before falling off at the finish.

“Phoenix we were kind of expecting to struggle, and then come to Long Beach and pick up the pieces,” Hinchcliffe said. “But we got a great result there. Both cars led laps. Now, we’re coming back to a street circuit. We were strong at St. Pete and we were strong here last year, so hopefully that’s the same, but you never know.

“It’s so competitive in this series. All you have to do is miss it a little bit on Friday (during practice) and it takes a lot of effort to get out of that hole. We’ve been on a little bit of a roll. Hopefully, we can keep it going.”

Hinchcliffe is expected to get strong challenges from Bourdais and Josef Newgarden, who scored wins at St. Petersburg and Phoenix, respectively. Graham Rahal, who was second in the opener, and Hinchcliffe’s Lucas Oil SPM Honda teammate Robert Wickens, who was second in Phoenix, should also be in the mix.

It’s also Southern California’s first view of newly-designed IndyCars, which are expected to provide for better racing while providing maximized safety. The first two events featured 23 lead changes.

“The first race at St. Pete was pretty interesting,” Rahal said. “We broke the race record for passes at the halfway point. I think much of the same is going to be seen here.

“I think everyone is really going to enjoy the cars. They’re a lot quicker. I’d anticipate the front-line speeds will be a lot quicker and the racing should be really phenomenal.”

The support events are the IMSA Sportscar Championship; the Pirelli World Challenge, the Motegi Racing Super Drift Challenge and the Historic Trans-Am Challenge.

The IMSA event, which takes center stage on Saturday, will include two-time Indy 500 champion Juan Pablo Montoya, who won the Grand Prix of Long Beach in IndyCar in 1999 en route to the CART Series title.

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