- Associated Press - Friday, April 13, 2012

LONG BEACH, CALIF. (AP) - The Mayor of Hinchtown is very funny, that’s never been in doubt.

But is James Hinchcliffe a great race car driver? He’s got the chance to answer that question now.

Hinchcliffe took over the most recognized ride in IndyCar this season when he replaced Danica Patrick in the bright green GoDaddy.com car for Andretti Autosport. Although extremely popular, Patrick was only mildly successful with only one victory and seven podiums in five seasons in that car.

So the bar wasn’t exactly set very high for Hinchcliffe, who was perhaps known for his creative marketing and the Hinchtown community he’d created on his personal web site.

“It’s no secret that I didn’t win a championship in a junior formula coming up to IndyCar,” he said Friday at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

“Obviously, stepping up, things get exponentially harder so people have always thought, `Well, we’ll see how this goes with this guy.’ Certainly a driver, within himself, believes he’s capable of running up front. But I like people not expecting it sometimes. I don’t mind being the surprise.”

Hinchcliffe, last year’s rookie of the year, has been one of the pleasant surprises through the first two races of the IndyCar season. He tied his career-best of fourth in the season-opening race at St. Petersburg _ an event he missed last year because he didn’t yet have a job _ and followed it with a sixth-place finish at Barber two weeks ago.

His debut race was the best finish for the GoDaddy car since Patrick finished second in the 2010 season finale, and it was the first back-to-back top 10s for the team since the end of that same season.

Additionally, Hinchcliffe has been very, very fast _ making it into the Fast Six round of qualifying in the first two sessions of the year.

Team owner Michael Andretti said there shouldn’t be any surprise over Hinchcliffe’s solid start. Andretti had noticed Hinchcliffe during his climb through the junior ranks, and thought Hinchcliffe really proved himself last season when he won top rookie honors while driving for Newman-Haas despite missing the first race of the year.

“He was always very good,” Andretti said. “I think last year he showed it, we had rated him before last year because of Indy Lights, but a lot of people didn’t notice him. He did very well last year and he had a great teammate (Oriol Servia) at Newman-Haas and was starting to beat him regularly near the end of the year.

“We definitely thought we were getting a good guy in terms of performance, and we knew he was a good guy.”

Hinchcliffe was under contract at Newman-Haas, and Andretti hired Dan Wheldon to replace Patrick when she left at the end of the season for NASCAR. But Wheldon was killed in the season finale at Las Vegas, and Andretti was again looking for a new driver.

He had Hinchcliffe at the top of a list of five drivers, but couldn’t get him because of Hinchcliffe’s commitment to Newman-Haas.

But on Dec. 1, Newman-Haas suddenly shuttered its race team, informing Hinchcliffe “10 minutes earlier than the rest of the world.” It was a blow to the 25-year-old Canadian, who was celebrating his strong rookie year.

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