IndyCar driver reveals what it’s like to compete against the former Detroit Lion in the show’s finals

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IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe was among the skeptics — Detroit Lions players included — who questioned if former wide receiver Calvin Johnson Jr. could really perform a foxtrot, tango or salsa routine.

“He definitely surprised a lot of people coming out of the gate who weren’t sure a guy that size was going to be able to move,” Hinchcliffe says of his 6-foot, 5-inch competitor. “But man, he can move. There’s a reason he’s fast on the field.”

Hinchcliffe and Johnson are among the four celebrity dancers vying for the Mirror Ball Trophy in the finals of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” this week. In an exclusive interview with The Detroit News, Hinchcliffe shared how he and Johnson have bonded over the last 10 weeks and formed what many see as an adorable “bromance.”

“He’s a great guy to be around and always has a smile on his face, so it’s been a lot of fun, not only watching him dancing, but getting to know him, as well,” Hinchcliffe says in a phone call from Los Angeles.

The four-time IndyCar winner adds that he and Johnson tackle dance routines like their sports.

“In his case, he’s used to learning plays, and in my case, learning laps, and we’re used to repetition and long hours and putting in hard work,” he says, “and I think we went about learning dances in a very similar way.”

Their like-mindedness proved beneficial when they teamed up for a paso doble dance — calling themselves Last Men Standing — with their professional partners. The Western-themed routine earned a 37 out of 40 from the judges.

“Honestly, that’s the reason why you guys are the last men standing. ... You guys both came out and rocked it,” judge Julianne Hough said in her comments afterward.

Hinchcliffe says he and 31-year-old Johnson “spoke the same language,” so they could easily lean on each other for certain steps.

As far as making it to the finals with his pro partner Sharna Burgess, Hinchcliffe says it’s “quite a surprise, but a pleasant one.”

“I came into this competition with — I wouldn’t even say low expectations — I’d say no expectations because I had no dancing experience, no dancing ability to my knowledge, so I didn’t know what to expect,” he says.

He’s more comfortable behind the wheel.

In Michigan, Hinchcliffe has raced on the Belle Isle Raceway seven times, placing fifth — his best finish — in 2014. He didn’t compete in 2015 due to a life-threatening leg injury caused by a crash. (His leg is back in tip-top shape.) But since IndyCar brought the Grand Prix back to the island in 2012, he says he’s spent more time in Detroit and discovered the “city’s charm.”

As an Ontario native, the 29-year-old also appreciates the race’s proximity to Canada.

“One of the things I love about coming to Belle Isle is the fact we are so close to Canada,” he says. “We do get a huge Canadian contingent to come out, and that support is always awesome.”

While Canadians may cheer for him on the race track, he now has Americans cheering for him on the dance floor.

If he wins the Mirror Ball Trophy on Tuesday, Hinchcliffe has an idea how he’ll celebrate.

“A day off, I think, is the best way to celebrate at this point. Since this whole thing started at the end of August, we literally haven’t had a single day off,” he says mentioning his sometimes 12-hour-day rehearsals, seven days a week. “More than anything, my feet just need a break.”

Lucky for him, quicksteps are not required around the racetrack.

ssteinberg@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2156

@Steph_Steinberg

Watch ‘Dancing

with the Stars’ finals

WXYZ-TV (Channel 7)

Monday 8-10 p.m.

Tuesday 9-10 p.m.

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