Hinchcliffe breaks through


Going into Sunday's Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, a headline in the Toronto Sun tagged their hometown racing hero, James Hinchcliffe, as "the man who can save IndyCar."

If we've learned anything after 15 years of an open-wheel split — and five years after IndyCar and Champ Car buried the hatchet — it's that it'll take more than one soul to fully rehabilitate the series. But you can't blame the Sun for its enthusiasm.

The optimistic and humorous Hinchcliffe tends to have that effect on followers of the sport. He's already become the sport's most popular driver and has the chops to be a title threat for years to come.

And now that he has his first IndyCar victory in his pocket after holding off Helio Castroneves on the streets of St. Pete, the sky's the limit on what kind of impact he could have on IndyCar's fortunes.

"I think that fans certainly like a winner," Hinchcliffe said on Sunday. "Now we can call ourselves that. Hopefully, it's not the last one. But I've always tried to be myself at the racetrack. I think some people at some points in my career thought that maybe I wasn't taking my job seriously enough or something like that.

"But I think when you look at the last three laps of this race, the pressure we were under, I made a couple 'tiny little errors' sort of thing. But to bring it all back, keep our head down, hold off a guy like Helio, hopefully it proves that you can be a joker off the track but still get the job done on the track."

If there were indeed some that thought that Hinchcliffe was too fun-loving to be a serious racer, the joke's on them now.

But now comes the tough part: Sustaining the momentum he's created for himself and for defending series champion Andretti Autosport. Hinchcliffe had managed to put himself second in the points at the halfway point last year, but eventually faded back in the standings.

He knows consistency is everything — he just needs to draw it out over the entirety of a season.

"You cannot make mistakes," he said. "It's so competitive, there's so many guys willing to pounce on anything you do wrong, whether it's in the pits, making a bad setup call or a driving error. People are going to take advantage of that."

But Hinchcliffe has the tools he needs to be a championship contender — his own talent, a team full of resources and a strong engineer in Craig Hampson, who helped him bag Rookie of the Year honors in 2011 despite missing the opening round of that season.

If Hinchcliffe can put it all together, good things can happen: For himself, for Andretti Autosport, and for the series as a whole.

He may not be THE man that can save IndyCar, but he could definitely be ONE of them.