CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - As he chugged champagne following his first podium finish in eight races, James Hinchcliffe knew he had decisions to make about his future.
He had an offer from KV Racing to replace Indianapolis 500 winner Tony Kanaan, and the team made it clear last weekend at the Grand Prix of Houston it was anxious for an answer. With sponsors on hold because of financial agreements that had been previously structured around Kanaan, KV wasn’t interested in a lengthy courtship of Hinchcliffe.
But Hinchcliffe, a three-race winner this season, was in no hurry.
“I’m not in a rush,” said Hinchcliffe, who finished third Sunday at the Grand Prix of Houston. “There are still some things I need to fall into place. I don’t feel the need to find something tomorrow to make sure that I’m going to be in a car.”
Current team Andretti Autosport is still trying to secure the sponsorship package needed to offer him a contract extension, and GoDaddy has yet to formally announce whether it will have a role in IndyCar next season.
Also, Hinchcliffe has also never been ruled out at Chip Ganassi Racing. Although Kanaan signed last week for the fourth seat that many assumed Hinchcliffe was a candidate to drive in 2014, Hinchcliffe could be in play at Ganassi for a hybrid role across multiple series.
The team has already said its looking to add a second entry next season in the merged Grand-AM and ALMS sports car series, and Ganassi probably will need a fill-in Nationwide Series driver for stand-alone races that Kyle Larson can’t get to next year once he’s moved up to the Sprint Cup Series. Ganassi does not discuss driver negotiations publicly.
Waiting to see how things play out with Andretti and Ganassi makes sense for Hinchcliffe.
When he announced Kanaan’s signing, Ganassi also said he was moving to Chevrolet next season. That immediately led to speculation Andretti must consider a manufacturer swap back to Honda _ a partnership that produced three championships and two Indianapolis 500s from 2003-11. An Andretti return to Honda could also align Hinchcliffe with Honda Canada, a longtime supporter of Canadian drivers.
With Ganassi, there’s also the potential of teaming with longtime Ganassi sponsor Target, which expanded in Canada this summer. Although Target sponsors the IndyCar entries for Scott Dixon and Dario Franchitti, and the NASCAR effort that Larson will drive next season, it could have interest in pairing with a Canadian driver now that its adding stores in that country.
Hinchcliffe said he was looking at his long-term future when considering all scenarios.
“Obviously, it would be nice to have something done in time for the last race of the year and know what you’re doing going into the offseason,” Hinchcliffe said. “But at the end of the day, we have a couple things in the works, and if any of them come together, I’m a very lucky guy. So it’s an interesting thing. It’s a new kind of position I find myself in.
“I need to make sure it’s the right decision that sets me up for the future. I can’t see short-term in this.”
500th AT HOME: A year ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to suddenly pull out of his home-track race because of a concussion.
Now he’s back at Charlotte Motor Speedway for Saturday night’s race in what will be his 500th career Sprint Cup Series start. Only 33 drivers have made 500 starts.
Fittingly for Earnhardt it comes at Charlotte, where he made his Cup debut in the 1999 Coca-Cola 600 in a car fielded by his late father. The then-24-year-old started eighth and finished 16th.
Earnhardt’s first pole at Charlotte came in 2000. He’ll be looking for another one in Thursday night’s qualifying, which is also his 39th birthday.
Although he won the 2000 All-Star race at Charlotte, Earnhardt has never won a points race at the track. Should he win Saturday night, he’d join Richard Petty and Matt Kenseth as drivers to win in their 500th start.
Last year, when he sat out the October race with a concussion, it was the first time since Sept. 3, 1979, that an Earnhardt was not in the field. Earnhardt’s father, seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt, was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
SPEEDWAY BENEFITS: Motorsports consultant Humpy Wheeler has formed a short track alliance designed to unite the 1,2000 grassroots tracks so they can have buying power to receive high-volume discount from vendors.
The alliance, called Speedway Benefits, represents more than $200 million in buying power, said Wheeler, the former promoter at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Speedway Benefits is a marketing alliance that is free to join.
“We are going to stick strictly to these grassroots tracks and not the big tracks of NASCAR, Indy and NHRA. This collectivism of all the short tracks will change the face of racing,” Wheeler said. “Short track racing, including ovals, drag strips and road courses, are the backbone of our sport and yet they have been shorted on television, advertising and media coverage. It is our intention to help fire the rockets to change this. There is more excitement in racing at such tracks as Carolina Speedway, Lebanon Valley, Skagit, Bowman Gray, Eldora and Thunder Road in Vermont than most superspeedways.”
Speedway Benefits is expected to grow to 50 employees and create 1,000 new jobs across the country, Wheeler said.
DEMPSEY CHALLENGE: Justin Wilson is packing his bike up and headed north to join Patrick Dempsey in raising money for the fight against cancer.
The IndyCar driver will participate in the Dempsey Challenge presented by Amgen to raise funds for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope & Healing in Lewiston, Maine, this weekend.
Wilson, who carried a Dempsey Challenge decal on his Dale Coyne Racing entry in the Baltimore Grand Prix, is an avid cyclist and rides as part of his training regimen. All funds raised in the Dempsey Challenge will go directly to the Dempsey Center, which allows the organization to provide free support, education and integrative medicine services to anyone impacted by cancer.
“I think it is remarkable what Patrick has done, and when they asked if I might want to come be a part of it, I didn’t have to think twice,” said Wilson. “I really enjoy cycling, so to be able to get out to that part of the country and go for a ride, and raise some money and awareness for a great cause, it is a great opportunity and I’m grateful to be involved.”
The ride is the second two-wheeled campaign of the year for Wilson, who in April teamed with athlete Bo Jackson as he rode to raise funds for natural disaster victims in Alabama.