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Originally published Friday, April 13, 2012 at 3:56 PM

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Hinchcliffe proving to be more than a funny guy

The Mayor of Hinchtown is very funny, that's never been in doubt.

AP Auto Racing Writer

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LONG BEACH, Calif. —

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.

"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."

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