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“It was a huge shock. You are left doing this scramble, and this level of the sport, the deals are usually done much earlier,” Hinchcliffe said. “You finally work 15 years to get to this point, and I got my big break, we had a good year, won rookie of the year, and I thought `Wow. I’ve done it. I’ve proved I belong here.”

And then you find out, `Well, that’s great, but your team is now closing the doors.’ “

But Andretti said his pursuit of Hinchcliffe became an immediate contract negotiation the minute Newman-Haas announced its closing. The deal was completed Dec. 24 and announced in early January, but not before Hinchcliffe had conversations with Wheldon’s sister, Holly, and later with Wheldon’s widow, Susie.

“The first call that I got, the only thing that went through my mind was Dan,” he said. “But in talking with Holly, Susie, it made me instantly at ease with it. I had accepted it was a tremendous opportunity for me, but it still made me a little uneasy. So getting that approval from Dan’s family meant an awful lot.”

There was also the issue of selling Hinchcliffe to sponsor GoDaddy.com, which spends tremendously on activation and helped turn Patrick into a star. Andretti assured the sponsor he had a driver “they were going to love,” but Hinchcliffe still had to prove it to the company.

That’s his strong suit, though, evidenced by the many self-deprecating videos posted on his web site.

“That dude is funny,” said Go Daddy chief marketing officer Barb Rechterman. “His personality is what attracted us to James, and we feel like with his technical background, he will be able to talk about Go Daddy and be a great spokesman.”

And, oh, by the way, he’s running really well, too.

“I’ve watched both races and they have been nail-biters for me,” said Rechterman. “He’s a great driver.”

What about Hinchcliffe’s grass-roots Internet campaign to replace Patrick on the home page of Go Daddy’s web site?

“You know, we’ll just have to see how his campaign goes,” laughed Rechterman, who added the company has already begun discussing commercial concepts with Hinchcliffe.

Hinchcliffe has so far shown he’s able to tone down his supersized personality when it’s time to get in the race car, and he’s eyeing his first career victory. An engine failure during testing earned him a 10-spot penalty on the starting grid for Sunday’s race at Long Beach, but the blow was softened a bit when Chevrolet decided to pull the engines from all 11 of its teams.

All told, 14 cars have made engine changes, so the field will be scrambled Sunday and Hinchcliffe is not at the severe disadvantage he thought he’d be when his engine first failed.

“Monday was obviously very difficult because we had good momentum in the first two races, this is one of my favorite tracks and we were looking for a strong result,” he said. “Not that we can’t get it in the current circumstances, but it certainly was one of those moments of `Oh, really? This one? This is the one we have to be penalized? I can’t defer it to Brazil? Please?’ So that was tough.

“But did what happened Thursday benefit me? Sure. Did it make me feel better? Not really. I am a Chevy driver, Chevy is part of my team, so for them to make a change like that is difficult and I would never wish that on the other Chevy drivers. Or even the Honda drivers. I’d like to beat them fair and square.”