By Bruce Martin
JOLIET, Ill. — Perhaps it was a prelude to the thrills that would follow in the IndyCar Series race as Saturday’s Chicagoland 100 Firestone Indy Lights Series race was filled with close competition as Daniel Herrington scored his first-career victory.
But it was “Captain America” who got to celebrate as J.R. Hildebrand clinched the 2009 series championship with a fifth-place finish.
Hildebrand became the first driver from the United States to win the Indy Lights championship since A.J. Foyt IV captured the 2002 title when it was known as the Infiniti Pro Series.
That has earned Hildebrand the nickname, “Captain America.”
“It was not a self-given nickname,” Hildebrand said. “It’s been a little while since an American has won this…so it’s been a few years. We’ve got a lot of American guys on the team. We’re an American team as it is, and we’re racing in the good ole U.S. of A. So it’s been kind of fun to root for the hometown crowd, for the boys on AFS/Andretti Green Racing team.
“I think it all actually started when my engineer was walking through Target to get some underwear or something, and he walked by the toy aisle and saw a little Captain America action figure, so he picked it up thinking, ‘Oh, that’s pretty cool, maybe we can do something with this.’
“And then he brought it back to the shop, and the guys whipped up a little fan for us and we threw it on the car, and that’s kind of where the nickname came from.”
Herrington, a rookie from Winston-Salem, N.C., defeated James Davison by .0613 second in a race that featured five lead changes among four drivers. It was also the first win for Bryan Herta Autosport.
When Herrington passed Wade Cunningham for the lead on lap 42, he led the remainder of the 67-lap race.
“Finally,” Herrington said. “We’ve had a rough couple of races in the middle of the season. At the beginning of the year, Bryan told us we would win a race. We didn’t think it would be this late in the season before we won a race. It sure is nice to get that win.
“From lap one, I knew that we could do it. I had a lot of confidence in the car from practice and knew that was where our car worked really well. So I tried to get up there as soon as I could. But it was definitely hairy. That was one of the tightest races I’ve ever been in, so I was just fortunate to survive in some cases.”
Vision Racing’s Davison finished second for the second time this season and had his seventh top-five finish.
Andrew Prendeville finished third for his best finish of the season. Wade Cunningham finished fourth and Hildebrand fifth to wrap up the Firestone Indy Lights championship.
“I could get used to that title,” Hildebrand quipped.
Hildebrand is hoping to move up to the IndyCar Series next season and has gotten some positive praise from team owner Michael Andretti.
“There is nothing really substantial,” Hildebrand said. “The team is having ownership roles changing, so I think the team needs a little bit of time to get that sorted out. What Danica (Patrick) decides to do probably has a big effect on where a lot of people go this year. It looks like she’s going to stay now, and so we’ve just got to sort some things out in the offseason.
“But for me as a driver, I’d love nothing more than to be able to move up within this organization. So we’ll see what happens.”
Daniel Herrington, James Davison, Andrew Prendeville, Wade Cunningham, J.R. Hildebrand, Sebastian Saavedra, Charlie Kimball, Martin Plowman, Pippa Mann, Rodrigo Barbosa, Richard Philippe, James Hinchcliffe, Mike Potekhen, Ana Beatriz, Brandon Wagner, Mario Romancini.