ST. PETERSBURG — As the IndyCar series moves on in its first race without Danica Patrick, some of the spotlight will fall on the man who inherited her neon green car and GoDaddy.com sponsorship.
"Big heels to fill," James Hinchcliffe said.
And the comical, 25-year-old Canadian gets to step into Patrick's stilettos and No. 27 Andretti Autosport Chevrolet.
Hinchcliffe was the Rookie of the Year last season with seven top-10 finishes. But when Newman/Haas Racing folded in the offseason, he was without a ride — until team owner Michael Andretti offered Hinchcliffe what he calls "one of the most prized rides in IndyCar."
Now, after a turbulent offseason, Hinchcliffe must handle the off-track expectations that come with replacing Patrick.
"I think that's where the pressure is with that car," Andretti teammate Ryan Hunter-Reay said.
Hinchcliffe has the colorful personality to carry the load.
He dubs himself the mayor of Hinchtown, his online, "6G, gluten-free" community full of wacky features and videos. He impersonates fellow drivers Dario Franchitti and Helio Castroneves, and he dubbed his team with Hunter-Reay and Marco Andretti "the three stooges."
"It's sort of just who I am," Hinchcliffe said. "I guess the difference is when the visor goes down, that changes."
He said he doesn't expect to replace Patrick's role in the series, but he's not shying away from it, either. He's started a campaign called "Hinch for the homepage" to replace Patrick's photo on GoDaddy.com. And, as the season unfolds, Hinchcliffe said he'll appear in plenty of commercials, too.
"I know I will be fully dressed in them," Hinchcliffe said. "That's probably a good start for everybody."
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.