Panther Racing says former Indy Lights champion JR Hildebrand is "near the top of a short list of candidates" for its 2011 IndyCar team after testing him at Phoenix this week.
The team seems unlikely to continue with Dan Wheldon, and gave 22-year-old American Hildebrand a two-day evaluation at the Arizona oval.
"We took this test very seriously," Panther co-owner John Barnes said. "And we wanted to make sure we understood the scope of our decision if we eventually decide to make a driver change.
"What's important is that whoever drives for us next year fits into the Panther family. The team was encouraged by JR's intellect and his ability to grasp suggestions from our team and how quickly he adapted to a track he's never been to. We'll continue to work with JR to evaluate his skill set and how he could potentially fit into this team."
The team recruited IndyCar legend Al Unser Jr. to assist with its assessment.
"What I like about JR is that he's calm and very collected," said Unser. "He got loose a few times coming off [Turn] 2 and when he finished his run, he came in and wasn't nervous at all."
Hildebrand was unable to secure a full-time IndyCar seat after winning the 2009 Lights title, so his only outings this year were some sports car drives and two IndyCar starts for Dreyer & Reinbold. He also had a Formula 1 test with Force India last winter, but missed out on the reserve role to Paul di Resta.
"Panther is obviously a first-class organization, so from that perspective, it's just a pleasure of mine to be able to come out here and drive the No. 4 car," said Hildebrand. "The chemistry was really good right away with the mechanics and the engineers, so we got off to a great start and had a productive couple of days."
Panther plans to test several drivers before making a final decision on its 2011 plans.