J.R. Hildebrand, driver of the No. 21 Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet, for Ed Carpenter Racing, hasn’t had the best of seasons thus far, but a career-best finish at Iowa Speedway has helped turn that around.
Prior to Iowa, he only had one finish inside the top-10, a third at Phoenix. Hildebrand showed that he had a fast car in qualifying by winding up in the second position. When the green flag waved on Sunday, Hildebrand steadily stayed in the top-10, even leading some laps. He took the lead on Lap 97 and stayed in the lead until Lap 134. He then stayed consistent and ended up finishing the race in the second position.
“Yeah, I think we had a really good car out there today, but sort of to Ryan’s point, I think just because of the heat, to have a car that was good enough by enough that once you got later in a stint that you could get by guys, it was just really tough,” Hildebrand said. “You know, we opted to — we thought that we were better than the cars in front of us or the majority of the cars in front of us running fourth or fifth or something and elected to pit early, get on fresh tires, rip off a bunch of laps and try to kind of cycle out with better track position and see how that worked out for us.
“You know, it was a great call by the guys in the pits. I think they could kind of see how the race was unfolding. There weren’t a lot of yellows. That would have cost us a lot in that race if a yellow had come out after we had pitted, but it was definitely the right call to try to challenge for the win, and was able to hold off everybody but one. From that perspective, it was definitely hairy there for the last kind of eight or ten laps. We were just on more used tires than the rest of the guys around us. Lap traffic was super difficult to get around. I ended up getting stuck behind a couple of guys for like 30 laps at the end. But all in all, just really happy for the team and to get the Fuzzy’s Vodka Machine up here on the podium again.”
Helio Castroneves had the strongest car all day, so it came down to a strategy decision at the end of the race to try and beat him. The team short pitted trying to get ahead of the No. 3. It worked to get him in front, but wasn’t able to keep him in front.
“It was more just it became about track position basically at the end.,” Hildebrand added. ” You know, by the end of the race, Ryan mentioned that you had kind of like 10 laps to go hard wherever you wanted on the track. But even if you could keep doing that for another five laps — I started to just run wherever I thought I was hurting the tires the least because I knew that that was going to be something I was going to have to be paying attention to 30 laps later when there was five or eight to go.
“From that perspective, I think we probably had Helio’s pace. I got jammed up in traffic, which is when he got by. For a period of time there even with a lapped car between us, we were basically holding station.”