Robert Wickens one-upped his hugely impressive series debut at St. Petersburg by contending for the win on Saturday and hanging on for a second-place finish in the Desert Diamond West Valley Casino Phoenix Grand Prix at ISM Raceway.
The 29-year-old Canadian – who is two-for-two in front-row qualifying performances he credits to his time in the German DTM touring car championship – admitted he “never would have expected” to have done so well this early in his IndyCar career.
“[The Phoenix podium] means a lot,” he said. “My goal coming into this was to finish every lap. Even on that last restart, leading, knowing there is only the three of us that stayed out, my thought process didn’t really change.
“Even if I finished fifth, I would have been kind of, well, a little bit disappointed but still happy that I got even a top five on my first oval race.
“I feel like I’m setting the bar a little bit high for myself. But I never would have expected the first two races to go as well as they did. Hopefully we can get our season going now.”
Wickens and Schmidt Peterson Motorsports teammate James Hinchcliffe ran 2-3 late in Saturday’s race when Ed Jones’ crash brought out the caution on lap 229. While the SPM duo and Rossi stayed out, a host of cars came in to pit, and it was ultimately Josef Newgarden on fresh tires who slid by Wickens on the outside of Turn 1 with three laps to go to take the win. Still, Wickens took his helmet off and was seen with a huge grin despite falling short for a second straight race.
“It was a tough night,” he admitted. “It went by actually a lot quicker than I was expecting. When I saw it was 250 laps, kind of strapping in for an endurance thing. I had a lot of fun out there, especially the middle part of the race when James and I were fighting for the lead, had a good little battle a couple times. I was smiling under the helmet. It was fun.”
In addition to the laps he ran during the open test at ISM Raceway in February, Wickens said he readied for this race by simulator work and watching races from the 2000s to the present. But his SPM team is responsible for making him feel comfortable in his Honda, he says.
“I think the team is doing such a great job getting me up to speed,” he said. “They’re carrying me. It goes from my teammate with Hinch, both car crews, the 5 and 6, are doing such a strong job. The camera team is phenomenal. James is taking the brunt of the work for us because he’s the one basically setting up the car because he has a lot more oval experience than me. I’m kind of doing the basic stuff, but he’s taking the job list of the tough things.
“He’s building us a great car. I’m just reaping the benefits of driving a well-balanced car. Hats off to him. I don’t actually know where he ended up in the race. I think it shows that we’re a strong team here. Yeah, the team is just doing a great job getting me going.”