Andretti calls Kirkwood the real deal, also discusses decision to break up Colton/Bryan Herta combo

Michael Andretti knew exactly what he had in Kyle Kirkwood. That’s why despite not having any room for him within the Andretti Autosport stable for the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season, he wasn’t going to let him get fully away either. Kirkwood instead raced for AJ Foyt Racing in the No. 14 Dallara-Chevrolet. However, it was almost a loaner opportunity with Andretti retaining Kirkwood’s rights despite the venture.

With Alexander Rossi not showing much interest in coming back, the writing was on the wall. Kirkwood was going to take over the keys to the No. 27 Dallara-Honda in 2023. He just had to get through 2022 first.

The plan was a brilliant one. Let Kirkwood learn the ropes and go through rookie mistakes with another team. Rookies are normally tough on equipment and otherwise costly. Let him tear up Foyt’s cars and get that out of his system so when he comes back to Andretti, he’s not as raw and would certainly have a better feel for the competition in the most difficult racing series in the world.

“I think it was huge, to be honest with you,” Andretti admitted. “A rookie is definitely going to make mistakes and things like that, just because you’re learning, right?

“By him having that year, coming to us, it worked out perfect for us. You see it right away, he’s competitive. Hopefully he can win a bunch of races.”

Kirkwood is the all-time winningest Road to Indy driver (31 wins). He knows how to get the job done. Last year, he admitted that he wasn’t used to being mid pack or even further behind and honestly didn’t know how to race like that. He was always used to always being up front and now in the situation that he was finding himself in at Foyt, he pushed too hard to get back towards the top half of the field. The other problem was that he was so good coming through the ranks, that he never had much time to learn his actual race craft. When you’re always on the pole and leading laps, you don’t get the experience to race other people.

In 2022, he got the discipline of all the above. Now, he’s back in the front and knows it’s time to maximize on this opportunity.

“I mean, I was hopeful it would happen this quickly,” Kirkwood said. “I was hopeful it would happen at St. Pete. We were extremely fast there.

“Ultimately it’s a testament to the team. Andretti Autosport does a phenomenal job. I feel like we’ve made a leap from last season based on my understanding. I wasn’t with them last season. Based on what the drivers talk about, we’re in a really good direction. I feel like the car is in a really good spot. For instance, in that entire qualifying session, I didn’t touch a thing, brakes, bars. This is good enough, we can go for the pole like this. That was the case.

“I mean, it just shows how good the team is flowing. It’s important weekends like this when you roll out of the trailer well, and I feel like we did. It’s just been enjoyable. It creates a calmness throughout the team. To have that calmness is super beneficial.”

Michael Andretti at the 2023 Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

This pole also gives validation for Kirkwood. He now knows that he can truly do it at the top level and doing so in just his 20th start.

Kirkwood had to lay a quick lap on scuffs in the final seconds of Q2. Then, he knew he had two laps in Q3 for a pole run. Talk about pressure.

“Yeah, he’s the real deal,” team owner Michael Andretti said about his pupil.” Happy for him. He’s been a pleasure on the team. We’re really excited, really happy for the results. Romain did a great job. Obviously he was on used tires. Kyle was on new tires. He put in a really good lap.

“Really, really happy.”

This also validates Andretti’s decision to move Bryan Herta away from son Colton Herta. It was a puzzling move to those outside of the team. Even Colton didn’t necessarily agree with the move. However, with Bryan Herta now with Kirkwood, it’s paid off in a big way.

“He got the pole,” Andretti said while smiling. “Brian is going to say that, the only reason he got the pole.

“I think it’s working out really well. I think for Kyle, it’s going to be great having Brian on the radio because of his experience. I think it’s going to help his learning curve, as well.”

Andretti admitted that they almost made this move last year.

“The reason was I think we felt like for the team it would be better — actually, we were going to do it. It was already planned. Brian Barnhart was supposed to be on Colton’s car. Then that changed. We were like, What do we do?

For the first race we decided to go and keep it the way it was. Then we decided after that that we think Brian being on his radio will be a lot more beneficial. That’s the real reason,” said Andretti.

Andretti said he felt like now was the best time because of Colton being a veteran now and Bryan being able to provide Kirkwood the experience and leadership to succeed.

Absolutely, yeah,” Andretti chimed. “It’s great for a young driver. He helped Colton I think a lot when he started out. I think we just felt like it was better for the team.”

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