It's still going to be a tall order for him to win the title, but James Hinchcliffe did himself a huge favor by scoring a great win at Chicagoland Speedway.
After suffering fuel pump issues on his qualifying run, the Canadian started 13th, but quickly climbed into the top eight and took advantage of yellow flags (and one red flag) to firmly embed himself in the lead pack. In the final two lap sprint to the finish, the Team Moore driver kept his foot in around the outside line to edge Pippa Mann at the checkers by just 0.0159sec in the third closest finish in Firestone Indy Lights history.
The race was stopped after seven laps, when Charlie Kimball – caught out when Hinchcliffe had slowed slightly in front of him – jinked right, lost grip, and drifted hard right, making contact with Gustavo Yacaman's Cape Motorsports/Wayne Taylor car. The Andretti/AFS Racing rubbed wheels and was launched into a backflip that saw the No. 26 land upside down. The American was unhurt.
Up front, the battle between polesitter Martin Plowman (AFS Racing/Andretti Autosport) and Mann (Sam Schmidt Motorsports) that had raged since the start of the race, ended on lap 30 when Mann's left front wing endplate sliced Plowman's right-rear tire, sending the AFS car skittering toward the wall. Hinchcliffe was extremely lucky to squeeze between Plowman and the concrete before the Briton regained control and brought the car down to the apron and pit lane.
That incident brought out the full course caution. On the restart, Mann led a Sam Schmidt 1-2-3, with championship leader J.K. Vernay and Philip Major in her mirrors, but Hinchcliffe was in the groove, trying to stay out of the phony battle between the well-driven Walker Racing machine of Dan Clarke and the lapped Plowman. Hinchcliffe dispensed with Major after many laps of side by side racing, but at lap 52, the field were once more slowed down for a yellow caused by the spinning Brandon Wagner (Davey Hamilton Racing).
At the green, Mann's slightly tardy getaway wrong footed Vernay, who swung to the outside to go around, just as his teammate found her pace. That left a gap up the inside that Hinchcliffe was all too willing to fill, as he saw Mann was all that stood between him and a remarkable victory. While Vernay fought off Major, Clarke and a very strong performance from Arie Luyendyk Jr in the Andersen Racing car, Hinch kept trying the outside line around Mann, trying to work out where he might pass. Even another yellow – this time caused by Plowman finally making hard contact with the outside wall and getting another right-rear puncture – barely interrupted the flow of the battle.
Hinchcliffe's yellow-and-white No. 2 car was all over Mann's pure-white machine for the final four-lap shootout, and though Mann tried to force him onto a high line as he drew alongside, it seemed to hurt her momentum more than Hinchcliffe's, resulting in the stunning finish that Major and Vernay were able to witness from close quarters as they completed a Sam Schmidt 2-3-4.
Clarke held on to take a fine fifth place, while Stefan Wilson brought his Bryan Herta Autosport car home in sixth, even surviving a spin during a caution period. His teammate Sebastian Saavedra was less lucky. After spending the first third of the race running in the top five, the Colombian dropped backward with a loose-handling racecar, finally pitting with a mechanical issue.
Hinchcliffe's third win of the season leaves him still trailing Vernay by 53 points with just two rounds remaining. But with the first oval win of his career, the Team Moore star has at least proven he could match the Sam Schmidt Motorsports ace for wins at the end of the 2010 season.
1. (13) James Hinchcliffe, 67, Running
2. (2) Pippa Mann, 67, Running
3. (4) Philip Major, 67, Running
4. (5) J.K. Vernay, 67, Running
5. (11) Dan Clarke, 67, Running
6. (10) Stefan Wilson, 67, Running
7. (14) Arie Luyendyk Jr., 67, Running
8. (12) Adrian Campos Jr., 67, Running
9. (9) Dillon Battistini, 67, Running
10. (15) Rodrigo Barbosa, 67, Running
11. (3) Sebastian Saavedra, 64, Running
12. (8) Brandon Wagner, 64, Running
13. (1) Martin Plowman, 58, Contact
14. (6) Charlie Kimball, 5, Contact
15. (7) Gustavo Yacaman, 5, Contact
Vernay 444, Hinchcliffe 391, Kimball 343, Plowman 338, Saavedra 303, Clarke 271, Wilson 262, Major 258, Yacaman 249, Campos 243.