Can Andretti Autosport turn strong weekend into a season opening victory in Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), their thoughts heading into Sunday

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla — Every year we seem to be asking if Andretti Autosport can turn their qualifying pace into a strong race day. Their practice and qualifying pace isn’t unusual. What has been is the lack of wins. In a series that’s rewarded so much track position, it’s baffling that the organization hasn’t had more wins than they’ve had lately.

Romain Grosjean had 9 top 10 starting spots in 2022 but just one top 5 accounted for and only three laps led to show for it. Colton Herta had 11 top 10 starting spots, five of which in the top three spots, but he only had one win. That win wasn’t even from one of those top 10 starting positions either. Alexander Rossi had 7 top 10 starting spots, six in the top 5 but one win and just three total podium finishes.

On Saturday, Andretti Autosport locked down 3 of the top 5 starting spots for Sunday’s NTT INDYCAR Series season opener on the streets of St. Pete. Grosjean (59.5532-seconds) is on the pole. Herta (59.9687-seconds) is starting second.

Newcomer, Kyle Kirkwood, who replaces Rossi in the No. 27 Dallara-Honda will start fifth. In a race that has seen 12 of the last 16 races won via a top 5 starting spot, can they deliver in the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Pete (12 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network)?

“We were very excited coming into this season for sure,” said team owner Michael Andretti. “Pre-season testing went very well. We did a lot of hard work over the winter. We felt pretty optimistic, but you never know what you have until you get it on the racetrack.

“Seems like it’s showing the way we hoped it would. Great start so far. Obviously we’re here for the race, so tomorrow is the big day.”

Andretti Autosport faded from the likes of the “Big 2” over the last few years and really fell into the clutches of Arrow McLaren Racing instead. After a disappointing season of a year ago to where they finished behind all three Penske’s, three Ganassi drivers and both McLaren’s, they spent a lot of time closing that gap back up again.

Rossi knew going into last season that it would be his last with the team that took a chance on the California kid in 2016. Kirkwood was brought back inhouse. Herta was handed a hefty raise and a contract extension. Other internal changes were made.

They looked the part early for most test sessions, but until you show up to St. Pete for the first official sessions, you truly never know.

“For me, I feel a lot more optimistic,” Andretti said. “I think we really studied ourselves and got real honest with ourselves where we needed to improve. I think we’ve done it.

“Obviously the race is going to be another thing. Hopefully we can have all four cars go through the race without making a mistake. If that happens, I think we have a great shot at winning.

“I mean we did have many races where we had very fast cars last year, but we tended to do something wrong, shoot ourselves in the foot one way or another. That’s another thing we’ve really studied and worked on. Hopefully our pit stops will be better and strategies will be better.

“We really worked on trying to be a lot more detail-oriented, things like that.

“I hope it pays off.”

The only other two drivers upfront with them are Pato O’Ward in third and Marcus Ericsson in fourth. O’Ward has four career wins, none on a street course. Ericsson has 3 career wins but two of which on street circuits.

Last year, Herta qualified third and finished fourth. Grosjean stared and finished fifth. Can they use their starting spots this year to capitalize?

“Obviously, we’ll try to win, but if it’s not going to happen, it’s not going to happen,” Herta admitted. “We’ll finish third, fourth, 15th.”

Grosjean agreed.

“If the car is good enough to win, we win. If not, we finish where it is,” he says.

The last two years has seen the pole sitter win. That’s great news for Grosejan. Also, the last two years has seen the quickest driver in the Saturday morning practice win too. That was Herta’s victory this morning.

“Yeah, 26 other guys that are trying to do the same thing as I am tomorrow,” Grosjean said.

“INDYCAR is super competitive. We’ve seen the lap times in practice have been very tight. Good thing is that we’ve got three cars up there, so we have good chances as a team to grab the win.

“I’m going to do the best I can.”

Kirkwood is another one to watch. He’s by far is the leading candidate for most improved driver. Rightfully so too. Going from AJ Foyt Racing to Andretti Autosport would alone do that. However, Kirkwood is living up to his billing by being quick in Thermal, fast in Sebring and now near the top of every session in St. Pete.

The sophomore driver was fourth in both practice sessions in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda and even qualified sixth.

“Yeah, it was solid,” said second year driver, Kyle Kirkwood. “I mean, we just rolled off of two amazing tests at Thermal and Sebring. All of the speed that we’ve had in pre-season testing has translated to now.

“Its definitely really nice to roll into a weekend with some pace, right? I mean, as everyone knows, INDYCAR is so close, if you’re behind by a couple 10ths, you’re usually fighting to get that all weekend.

“No, it’s a good feeling, especially since Colton is up there, too.”

Kirkwood says that he feels like this early pace is important for him personally to show that he can still do it.

“I think it’s definitely important,” Kirkwood said. “From the outside looking in, it’s not as important for me or the team, but I guess for the persona around the team and myself based on my last year of performance being so up and down, to start up the year on a high and kind of continue that trait.”

Michael Andretti agrees with that.

“It’s big for him, for sure, for his head and everything,” he says. “One thing about Kyle, he has a lot of confidence. I don’t think any of this is bothering him. I think he had a lot of confidence in himself coming into the year. He said that when he got in one of our cars, there was a big difference. He took to it right away.”

Kirkwood notes that being with Foyt last year and where their placement was on the grid actually helped him improve drastically as a driver. In the Road to Indy ranks coming up, he was always found upfront. No one has as many wins (31) as Kirkwood did coming through the ladder system. He won the championship in all three years of racing in there.

Last year though, well it was different. He wasn’t used to being towards the back which forced him to learn a new wrinkle in his race craft. Now that he once again has a car capable of running up front, it can only help that he’s been groomed on actually “racing” other cars instead of driving well ahead of them.

“I think the expectation will continue to be that from the outside, and people will remember what I was in the junior formulas,” he noted.

“Being in the middle of the pack, having to race for things and drive to your absolute limit always is going to make you a better driver, I find.

“If I look back to my junior year in formulas, like F4, USF2000, not Indy Lights, Indy pro 2000, a lot of races I was just sitting there leading. I felt like I didn’t learn much.

“Being in the middle of the pack, having to race guys, push my all, which is something I didn’t have to do a ton in my junior formulas, definitely honed me in to be a better driver I find.

“Yeah, days like today where you have a season like that, you come into a year with how fast you’ve all been through testing, now is a really good feeling. It definitely gives me more confidence than I feel like I’ve ever had.”

He did make an ill-advised mistake in the final round of qualifying by pushing too hard again and finding the wall.

“No, been very, very happy with his results and testing. Up until the last mistake, this weekend he’s been doing a great job,” Andretti said of his young driver. “They sort of made a mistake in the first session where he they sent him out behind a slower car, he didn’t get a lap in. He had to use another set of reds to make it through because the red flag came out. Starting on the back foot anyway to make it a 1-2-3.

“But very happy with the job he’s been doing so far.”

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