Andretti had to make move for Kirkwood, here’s why

INDIANAPOLIS — The dominos are falling in the NTT INDYCAR Series silly season paddock. Pato O’Ward will remain with Arrow McLaren SP through the 2025 season. That was announced last Friday. Chatter was also being said that Alexander Rossi was leaving Andretti Autosport for Arrow McLaren SP beginning in 2023 which would leave the seat for his No. 27 Dallara-Honda open. In turn, it was expected that Kyle Kirkwood would replace the departing Rossi.

With the imminent announcement likely to come on Friday between Rossi and AMSP, Andretti went ahead and announced their plans prior. Rossi is out. They admitted that. Kirkwood is in. They admitted that too.

However, this was a move Andretti had to make. Rossi wasn’t happy. The results weren’t there and sometimes a change of scenery is best for both sides. This was the 2nd straight year of this occurrence as Ryan Hunter-Reay and AA cut ties following the 2021 season.

Rossi and Hunter-Reay were in similar situations with Andretti. Great past success with ho-hum results nearing contract years.

In saying that, Andretti couldn’t look anywhere else other than Kirkwood now. I mean they nearly lost him after not having room for him this season so he was housed with AJ Foyt Racing. It was only a matter of time Rossi was going to leave and with Colton Herta now on the radar for F1 and Romain Grosjean likely a stop gap for a couple of seasons here, you could look up in 2024 or even 2025 and have all the drivers your groomed racing against you.

O’Ward and Herta were Indy Lights teammates at Andretti. On the INDYCAR side, Andretti didn’t have any room for O’Ward so off he went and has since landed at AMSP. Rossi was groomed here starting in 2016 and they’re also about to lose him to AMSP. Herta could either go to the F1 team Andretti is trying to start for 2024 or even if they don’t get the bid, McLaren F1 is potentially after him too depending on his results in the practice sessions. Then if you don’t move Kirkwood back over soon, someone else could snatch him up.

Imagine losing out on O’Ward, Herta and Kirkwood.

Kyle Kirkwood may be a rookie but he has a 4 time Indy 500 winner in his corner. Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

They brought in Devlin DeFrancesco over Kirkwood last year and couldn’t allow him to get passed over again. Kirkwood has won 31 times in the Road to Indy and a championship at all three levels in the feeder system.

“It was a long-range plan. It wasn’t something that we just came up with overnight,” Andretti said of why DeFrancesco and why now last year. “We’ve had this planned out a few years ago. It was more basically just following the plan.”

Also, part of the other plan was maybe for Kirkwood to be in the No. 26 Honda anyways if Herta departed for F1. If it did in fact occur for 2022, then Colton Herta was going to be his lead driver overseas and Kirkwood would have shifted into Herta’s seat as a result.

“Yeah, that was the plan,” said Andretti.

“Well, obviously if we do ever get a team, he would lead the way for us in terms of wanting to bring an American driver,” said Andretti of Herta in the F1 talks. “He’d be the perfect guy to do it. Yeah, I mean, we definitely were going to try to get him into the seat because I believe he could be a competitive driver in Europe. I really do. There’s no reason why he wouldn’t.”

Andretti held an option for Kirkwood until Midnight on Nov. 1 of last year. Once Halloween officially ended, Kirkwood was free to look elsewhere. He landed at Foyt on a one year deal but Andretti couldn’t let him get away again.

“Unfortunately the way things ended, there wasn’t room for him, but I can assure you that he’s a star of the future, and we’re definitely going to be watching him,” Andretti also said last year of Kirkwood. “Hopefully down the road there could be an opportunity to get him back in the family.”

This is a situation that reminds me of what Hendrick Motorsports went through a little over a decade ago. HMS could have rolled out a driver lineup in 2010 of Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. Instead, the cut ties with Busch, didn’t have room for Keselowski and had Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in those cars.

At the time, I get those moves. Busch was a hot tempered driver that many feared his attitude would get in the way of his talent. He and HMS just didn’t jive. Martin, was a good replacement. Then you get someone like Earnhardt Jr. for 2008. Why would you immediately replace him with his protégé of Keselowski? You’re not dropping Gordon or Johnson and you had just signed Martin and Earnhardt Jr. That meant Keselowski was squeezed out and ended up falling into the lap of Team Penske.

The Martin move initially panned out. He won five times in 2009. The problem is, he and Earnhardt’s stats declined as the years went on. Martin, went winless in the No. 5 Chevrolet 2010 and 2011. He retired before the 2012 season. Earnhardt Jr. won in 2008 but didn’t win again until 2012.

Johnson and Gordon kept things afloat, but with the signing of Kasey Kahne and Earnhardt not really ever being a championship front runner, HMS found themselves in trouble.

Gordon retired. Then did Earnhardt. Kahne didn’t pan out. Johnson’s stats started falling off. Chevrolet as a whole was struggling and HMS had an identity crisis. It was time to get younger but in doing so, you’re going to compromise results.

That’s exactly what happened. But, it also led them also to where they are today on the heels of a record breaking season in 2021, having scored 2 straight championships and all 4 drivers with wins already this season.

Andretti is hoping for a similar turn of fate.

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