INDIANAPOLIS -- James Hinchcliffe still isn't over the disappointment of losing the Indianapolis 500 pole by a measly 9 inches to Ryan Briscoe.
It's a sign of just how much has changed for Hinchcliffe in a very short period of time. The Oakville, Ont., product wasn't even in IndyCar two years ago, when he was a guest commentator for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway radio team during the race.
Now he's on the front row for what's become the biggest race of his life.
"I've got a much different seat this year than I did in 2010," he laughed.
Does he ever.
Sunday's race could be the official launch party for the driver many believe is rapidly becoming one of IndyCar's new stars. He was a rookie last season known more for his savvy social media skills and marketing abilities than he was for his nondescript finishes with Newman-Haas Racing. When the team closed suddenly in December, he was out of a job.
Andretti Autosport had an opening, and it just happened to be the most visible seat in the series.
And that's how Hinchcliffe became Danica Patrick's replacement. That's exactly how he was known, too, and he embraced the role immediately. He posed for a photo in his bright green Go Daddy firesuit wearing heels, donned a long black wig during driver introductions at the season-opener and gave himself the nickname "Manica."
But when he climbed into the car, he was incredibly serious, and his team is running better than it ever did with Patrick. He's the only driver in IndyCar to make it to the Fast Six round of qualifying in every event, he scored his first career podium at Long Beach and he goes into the Indy 500 ranked third in the points standings.
Now it's his driving that's getting attention, and that Danica stuff is quickly becoming secondary.
Asked if the stage is set for his official breakout, Hinchcliffe answered with his natural wit and charm.
"Do I look like I am breaking out with something? Do I need a cream for it?" he smiled. "But I'll tell you, this month has been incredible. It takes me a lot longer to walk from the garage to pit lane than it did 12 months ago, and it's cool. It's overwhelming. I still don't fathom why anyone would want my autograph: I'm just a dorky Canadian kid who likes driving race cars."
The 25-year-old was scouted by team owner Michael Andretti as he climbed through the junior ranks, and Andretti had his eye on Hinchcliffe when he had a seat to fill. The late Dan Wheldon was originally set for Patrick's car, and there weren't many available drivers following his October death.
When Hinchcliffe became available on Dec. 1, Andretti snapped him up and the driver hasn't looked back since. His personality and ability to promote are evident, but it's been his performance that's validating his season.
Eddie Cheever, the 1998 Indy 500 winner and an analyst on ABC, thinks Hinchcliffe is the total package and lauded the driver's ability to hold an audience -- even comparing him to Ayrton Senna and Jackie Stewart.
"It's always difficult to pick a driver and say, 'He has all the pieces,' but he's shown a lot of speed on the street courses, he's the de facto leader of Andretti Autosport, he has charisma and he's engaging," Cheever said. "I get very bored listening to drivers and I've measured them over the years to Senna, Jackie Stewart, and I can actually sit and listen to him. I listened to him yesterday for 10 minutes.
"He's already niched out this person, it's a natural ability, and he's also (very) quick on the race track."
The next step comes Sunday, when Hinchcliffe has a legitimate shot to win the 500. The entire Andretti organization has been strong, and Ryan Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti will start third and fourth. Off the track, Go Daddy will debut its first national television ad with Hinchcliffe, who co-stars with Patrick in a spot shot earlier this month.
-- The Associated Press