JR Hildebrand

Maybe it’s having been a professional race car driver for a decade and a half. Or, it’s that he has been through almost every corner of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES paddock in his career. Perhaps it’s being 34 years old, now wise enough to know what lies ahead and what the expectations should be.

Regardless, JR Hildebrand seems as prepared as a driver can be for this weekend’s XPEL 375 at Texas Motor Speedway despite not having competed in the series since last year’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

Hildebrand will drive the No. 11 ROKiT/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet that series rookie Tatiana Calderon began the season with last month in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg presented by RP Funding. With a beefed-up training regime in advance of his five-race oval assignment with A.J. Foyt’s team and as a veteran of 66 races in this series, Hildebrand sounds up to the task.

Yes, he has goals, but he is trying to keep some aspects of them in perspective. After all, he hasn’t raced at a track other than Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2017.

“One of the things that I’ve learned over the course of my career is that you can kind of attach yourself a little bit too much to (finishing) results or even just like goals from a performance perspective,” he said. “At the end of the day, what really keeps you going and keeps you wanting to do this (is desire).

“I’ve had like a revived feeling of that energy over the last few years because I’ve been able to change my mindset a little bit. As a driver, you do really know when you get everything out of (the opportunity), even in those little micro-experiences over the course of the weekend.”

Hildebrand cited the gratification he derived from last year’s Indianapolis 500. Per recent years, he hadn’t driven an INDYCAR SERIES car in nearly a year, and the Foyt car rolled off the truck as a relatively last-minute additional entry. Once on track, the car also took some work getting up to speed, he said.

On paper, the program didn’t look “super special,” as he described it.

“But (I) really clicked with the guys and appreciated the work and the process of working through things,” he said. “Within a couple of days (the car) worked into the window (of success), and I had the best race car, the best-feeling car at the Speedway that I’ve had in a long time, just within a couple of days.

“I think particularly at this point in my career, that really matters a lot. Like, that registers to you when you can make that type of progress really quickly, and so I’m excited to be back with (Foyt’s team) and doing more racing.”

Hildebrand finished 15th last year at Indy, but through the pit stop exchanges spent seven laps in second place and was the highest-finishing Foyt driver. His teammates were Sebastien Bourdais and Dalton Kellett.

Hildebrand will compete not only at Texas – Sunday’s race is at 12:30 p.m. (ET) on NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network – but also at Indy, in the doubleheader at Iowa Speedway (July 23-24) and at World Wide Technology Raceway (Aug. 20). In addition to the “500,” where he finished second in 2011, Hildebrand is particularly excited to return to the Iowa short track, where he has finished second and fourth.

“Iowa is a place that I’ve had a lot of success at in the past and always enjoyed, and it’s been a track that I’ve just known what I needed there from the race car from the first time I rolled up – and more often than not have been able to find it with the teams,” he said.

Unlike some of his career’s part-time roles, Hildebrand has had a head start on this one. He has been working with Calderon and fellow series rookie Kyle Kirkwood at various points since the end of last season, and he prepped the car for Kirkwood during the recent rookie test at Texas.

In fact, Hildebrand said he has been around the Foyt team regularly since last year’s “500,” and in short order he has developed a strong bond with Kirkwood, who, like him, is a former champion of Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires. Hildebrand’s title was in 2009, Kirkwood’s was last year. Both are driving ROKiT-sponsored cars this season.

Kellett is AJ Foyt Racing’s other full-time driver in the No. 4 K-LINE/AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet, and he is coming off the best performance of his INDYCAR career by qualifying 14th in St. Petersburg and fighting with many race-winning drivers in the middle of the field before retiring with a mechanical failure.

“I guess I feel like I’m here to steer the direction of almost being like an extra engineer or something … trying to help bridge the gap between what (drivers) are feeling with the car and what’s really possible to get out of it,” Hildebrand said. “So, trying to kind of filter that information a little bit because that is something that I feel like I walk into these places with a pretty good feel for.

“Like, what are we going to have to tolerate in terms of the car not being perfect and what is a car thing that we are not going to get over that hump, so we need to focus our energy somewhere else versus, ‘OK, this is actually a problem that we need to deal with like right now, and we need to fix it.’”

That’s experience. That’s what Hildebrand has and brings to this five-race assignment.

Practice at Texas Motor Speedway begins at 11 a.m. (ET) Saturday, with NTT P1 Award qualifying at 2 p.m. and a second practice at 5 p.m. All sessions will be shown live on Peacock Premium, NBC Sports’ streaming service.