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Canadian Hinchcliffe carrying Maple Leaf heading into Honda Indy Toronto

07/05/2012 06:53 EDT | Updated 09/04/2012 05:12 EDT
TORONTO - Canadian James Hinchcliffe is having trouble filling Danica Patrick's shoes with Andretti Autosport this year.

"They're tiny shoes, she's like a size 6," the 25-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., deadpanned Thursday. "It's tight.

"I'm not good in heels, I've established."

It's that combination of quick wit and on-track success that has helped make the personable Hinchcliffe a hot commodity on the IndyCar series heading into the Honda Indy Toronto event Sunday. In fact, sponsor GoDaddy has gone to great lengths to heavily promote its newest star, with Hinchcliffe's face appearing on billboards and posters all over the city.

"Like really weird, that's how it feels," Hinchcliffe said of seeing his likeness. "I feel sorry for the people of Toronto, I apologize on behalf of myself and GoDaddy for doing that to them.

"It's great that GoDaddy is so behind it. To see the level of activation that they've taken here in Toronto is incredible . . . it's not something I'm used to seeing. I don't think you get used to seeing that but it's cool, it's all part of it."

But Hinchcliffe — the self-proclaimed "Mayor of HinchTown" — is far from being all sizzle and no steak. He's fifth in the overall driver's standings, just 30 points behind front-running Will Power.

He was second in the 2010 Firestone Indy Lights championship and last year was the top rookie in the IZOD IndyCar Series.

But what makes Hinchcliffe's standing this year amazing is he's the only driver among the top five not to have won a race this season. He has finished third on two occasions (April 15 at Long Beach, Calif., and June 16 at Milwaukee), earned a front-row starting spot at the Indianapolis 500 (where he finished sixth) and has ended up lower than sixth just twice in nine events this year.

One of those finishes to forget was a 17th-place effort June 23 at the Iowa Corn Indy 250. Hinchcliffe held the lead for 19 laps in the race but ultimately crashed with 55 laps remaining.

If Hinchcliffe is feeling any pressure to rebound in his home-town race, he's not openly showing it.

"I think the big thing is to try and not re-invent the wheel, not look at our last result and say, 'Oh my god, we finished whatever it is we finished, panic,' because it was an accident, we were running well and I think what we've been doing as a team has been very good.

"If we just stay on form, stay on point and continue the job we've been doing hopefully we'll put ourselves in a good position Sunday."

And Hinchcliffe can't say enough good things about the Toronto street course.

"This is one of my favourite street courses," he said. "It has a really good mix of fast corners, slow corners, long straights, heavy brake zones and the thing Toronto is famous for is the surface changes.

"There are about 8,654 different surface changes out there and that really throws the engineers and drivers for a bit of a loop. We enjoy the challenge, certainly, and there has been some improvements: Lakeshore (Boulevard) has been completely re-paved, which our backs thank the people for."

Scotland's Dario Franchitti, the 2012 Indy 500 winner, is a three-time Honda Indy Toronto victor and the defending race champion. Hinchcliffe began last year's event 13th and was top-finishing Canadian in 14th, one spot ahead of Toronto's Paul Tracy.

Hinchcliffe and Tracy were both running among the top-10 through 33 laps before bumping tires heading into a turn, contact that resulted in both drivers falling from contention.

But Hinchcliffe and Tracy, twice a winner in Toronto and the only Canadian to capture an Indy race here, won't have any epic battles Sunday as Tracy isn't driving in this year's event.

And that will undoubtedly make Hinchcliffe the overwhelming favourite in the hearts of Canadian racing fans Sunday, a heady status for a youngster who grew up idolizing another Canadian driving star, B.C. native Greg Moore.

At this year's Indy 500, Hinchcliffe qualified second overall while wearing a pair of gloves that belonged to Moore, who died in a race accident in '99 at the age of 24.

One of Moore's best friends on the circuit was Franchitti, who has said Hinchcliffe has many of the qualities that made Moore special.

That comparison humbles Hinchcliffe, who grew up idolizing Moore and in 2010 captured the Greg Moore Legacy Award, traditionally given to a driver who best typifies Moore's on-track talent as well as possessing a dynamic personality.

"When a guy like Dario says anything complimentary about you that's a pretty big statement," Hinchcliffe said. "To be compared favourably to a guy like Greg, who obviously meant a lot to Dario and meant a lot to me as well, it's very flattering. It's like the greatest honour.

"I remember years ago winning the Greg Moore Legacy Award and to me that was better than any on-track accomplishment that you could get because that award was about so much more than just driving. It was comparing you to Greg as a human being and I think that's what set him apart. There's a lot of good racing drivers but what made Greg stand out so much was who he was as a person as well. I idolized him as a kid, I tried to model myself after the kind of guy he was and so to have a comment like that from somebody that was close to him like Dario was, that's pretty incredible."

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