Kirkwood wins the pole for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network), recap with my top 5 thoughts/takeaways

Kyle Kirkwood becomes the latest first time NTT INDYCAR SERIES pole winner. The 24-year-old Florida native scored his maiden pole on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Southern California by going 1:06.2878-seconds in his No. 27 Dallara-Honda in the Firestone Fast Six to net the top starting spot for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network).

Kirkwood had the benefit of being far enough ahead on the cut line in the second round that he had a fresh set of alternate tires laying in the pits for the final stanza. The other five drivers with him in the Fast Six, each had scuffed alternates which put all the pressure on the Andretti Autosport driver to get the job done.

“It’s important we got that second lap in. I don’t think if we would have went to new we would have been quick enough to do it,” Kirkwood said. “It was the same thing in the Fast Six where I would have been half a 10th off of actually transferring into the Fast Six if it was just one lap.”

It’s one thing to have the fresh set, but it’s another to deliver.

Kirkwood delivered in the second round on scuffs to stay in the top six to advance, then in the final round, delivered the top lap late to give Andretti Autosport their 51st career pole.

“I’m feeling pretty good. That’s no doubt,” Kirkwood said after qualifying. “I knew we had it, though since after practice two I was like there’s 2/10ths left in it, I think we can do this right now.

“One thing about how car is we needed that second lap. If we didn’t have that second lap, it would have been more of a struggle. I feel like there were a lot of other cars that were able to do it on the first lap. Us not so much. Our car was extremely fast.

“I’m ecstatic, right? Starting in the front of a field in a street course is always super beneficial. That first pole is extremely meaningful to someone. To have it here at Long Beach with such a big crowd is such a cool thing.

“For me, I just knew I needed to execute. We were the only one with new tires. We knew we had a fast car. We were within a hundredth of Pato before. Quickest in our first group. There were a lot of variables in our favor.

“ I just knew I needed to execute. It felt like a really good lap that I put together. Ultimately got us the pole.”

This pole gives validation for Kirkwood. He now knows that he can do it.

“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.”

Andretti says that with Kirkwood learning his INDYCAR craft with AJ Foyt Racing a year ago was huge for his growth in the fact that he can join a team like Andretti Autosport in his sophomore year and have the newness already worn off.

“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 further behind and didn’t know how to race like that. He was always used to being up front so 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, he never had much time to learn his craft. When you’re always on the pole and leading laps, you don’t get the experience to race other people.

Last year, 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.”

Marcus Ericsson (1:06.3253-seconds) will start alongside on the front row in his No. 8 Dallara-Honda. It’s his best career Long Beach starting spot and gives him a ton of confidence to score his second win in the opening three races of the season.

The pole winner has been on the podium in three of the last four years. The second-place starter on the podium each year. 

Ericsson has four career INDYCAR wins which three of which coming on street courses. He’s won at Belle Isle, Nashville and this year in St. Pete. Is Long Beach next up?

Kirkwood is hoping to hold him and the other 26 drivers off as he feels like this gives him the confidence to do so.

Romain Grosjean (1:06.5347-seconds) starts third in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda while Alex Palou (1:06.5539-seconds), Scott Dixon (1:06.5730-seconds) and Pato O’Ward (1:06.6039-seconds) rounded out the Fast Six.

No Penske Cars In Fast 6

I wrote about this on Friday, that the Team Penske street course pace is lacking this season. A year ago, they won 3 of the 5 street course events. One of those was right here in Long Beach. This year however, they were struggling for pace in St. Pete and now again in on the streets of the Southern California race track.

They were 8th (Power), 10th (McLaughlin) and 22nd (Newgarden) in the opening practice in St. Pete. For the Saturday practice, they were 2nd (McLaughlin), 15th (Newgarden) and 19th (Power) respectively. They looked similar in qualifying.

Newgarden qualified 14th. Power was 10th and McLaughlin 6th.

On Friday in Long Beach, they were only 13th (McLaughlin), 14th (Newgarden) and 15th (Power). In Practice on Saturday morning, they were fifth (McLaughlin), 10th (Newgarden) and 14th (Power). For qualifying, none of the three made the Fast Six.

Newgarden starts eighth, McLaughlin ninth and Power in 13th.

Newgarden has three consecutive top two finishes here. Power has four Top-7’s in his last six. Right now, they’re behind again.

Row 4 Advantage?

The last two Long Beach winners start in Row 4. While starting in the Fast Six has a better advantage of a win, do both Colton Herta and Josef Newgarden each having a set of alternate tires give them an advantage for the race on Sunday?

Both were in the Fast Six when Marcus Armstrong got into the tire barriers with 53 seconds left in the second round. Both had similar strategy to save a fresh set of alternate tires for the final round. However, neither made it as both were bumped out.

That puts them with Herta starting seventh and Newgarden in eighth. Does having that extra set give them a strategical advantage for the race?

They think so.

Herta won from 14th here just two years ago. Newgarden has three straight top two finishes on this track…

Round 2 Strategy Costs O’Ward Pole

Marcus Armstrong brought out an interesting strategy play when he crashed in Turn 9 towards the end of the second round. At that point, the 11 other drivers were already committed to their strategy. However, by bringing out the red flag, they now had an interesting decision to make.

Do you put a fresh set of alternate tires on but not have them for use in the Fast Six? Do you run the scuffs that you already had on? In Pato O’Ward’s case, do you even go out?

I mean in order to go for the pole, you first had to be there. But, if you’re there and don’t have a fresh set, you also give the ones that do a massive advantage. To make matters even more difficult, with so little time left, they only had one lap to get it right.

It caught out Herta and Newgarden who went on scuffs and were bumped. Kirkwood did too, but he was already far enough up to not be penalized by doing so and advanced. O’Ward, Dixon, Palou, Grosjean and Ericsson went on a fresh set which left Kirkwood as the one with the advantage for the final round.

O’Ward pushed too hard when he didn’t have to and wasted that fresh set. As a result, it cost him the most in the final round in qualifying last among the Fast Six. For a driver that was quickest in both practice sessions this weekend, that’s a disappointment. In fact, this decision could even cost him a podium spot on Sunday too.

10 of the 12 podium spots were taken via Fast Six starters. However, 9 of the 12 podium spots in this timeframe were taken from starters in the top 2 Rows.

Starting Positions Of Podiums Since 2018

2022: 2,6,3

2021: 14,1,2

2019: 1,4,2

2018: 1,2,13

A decision like that could have dare I say, championship implications. Marcus Ericsson won St. Pete and starts second…

2023 Long Beach Grand Prix

Ericsson Improving Qualifying Pace

Marcus Ericsson’s goal entering 2022 was to become a better racer on ovals. It paid off. A podium in Texas but a win in the Indianapolis 500 accomplished that goal. The goal for 2023 was being a better qualifier. That was his next step in his growth in the NTT INDYCAR Series.

His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he started 12th or worse including 5 times in the final 7 races. It’s why he went from 6 top 5’s in the first 10 races this season and was leading the points to 4th. He had no top 5 finishes over the final 7 race stretch. While he had 3 top 10’s, it was the lack of top 5’s that allowed everyone else to catch up.

Consistently coming from behind was the culprit. Imagine if he started closer to the front in those races. It’s not like he wasn’t a hard charger. He went from 14th to 3rd in Texas, 18th to 4th in the GMR Grand Prix, 13th to 6th in Mid-Ohio, 15th to 6th in Iowa 2, 25th to 11th in the Gallagher Grand Prix.

“I think us as a team, it’s been one of our weaknesses the last couple years in that we’re not qualifying as high as we should,” he said. “Race day I’m not scared of anyone. I think on the 8 car we’re always going forward in the races; we’re always very strong in the races.

“It’s no secret that we need to improve on qualifying day. That is us in the 8 car but also Chip Ganassi Racing as a whole. I think if we can all improve, it’s going to help us. These days as well, INDYCAR is becoming more and more competitive. So many good drivers and teams. If you start mid pack, yeah, it might be long races, but to win a race from mid pack is getting harder and harder.

“It’s been one of the big focus areas in the off-season, to try to find things in the setup, in the way to understand the tires, stuff like that, to mainly improve our qualifying performance. It’s been a big focus for us. It’s going to be interesting this week to see if we have found some things that are going to work, then apply that throughout the season.”

His race craft truly is as good as it gets. His peers took notice. That praise makes Ericsson feel good but he also says that it can only go so far. At some point, you have to focus back on yourself again.

“Of course it means a lot,” he says of the praise by his peers. “But at the same time, you sort of race for yourself in a way. I think INDYCAR is, if not one of the absolute toughest series in the world, it’s amazing drivers here in the series. I feel like the last couple years I’ve shown that I can be fighting up front, winning races, fighting for championships.

“But, yeah, of course it means a lot to get respected by your competitors.”

Ericsson has delivered in 2023. While he was only 16th in Texas, he qualified fourth in St. Pete and on the front row now in Long Beach.

“Yeah, no, it was a really good session for us,” said Ericsson on Saturday post qualifying. “I think a really good weekend. From the get-go we’ve been fast. Practice yesterday, practice this morning.

“Qualifying was a bit hectic with the red flags and stuff going on. Q2, we were on a really good lap, the red came out, we had to go for another set of tires to make sure we could transfer. Didn’t have that sticker set then, which would have been nice.

“Still it was a really good effort. Tied my best qualifying result in INDYCAR, so I’m really happy about that. I worked really hard this winter to improve my qualifying performance. I’ve talked about it a lot, focused a lot on it, worked on it by myself and with my team.

“P4 in St. Pete and P2 here, that’s progress. I’m really happy with that. Going to take the fight with these guys tomorrow.

“We’re making progress. Like I said, our weakness or my weakness has been qualifying in INDYCAR so far. I think our form this year, with Thermal, I think that shows we’re making progress. All my INDYCAR career has been about making progress, getting better and better, stronger and stronger. Now we’re a better package, better driver this year again.

“I think everyone should look out because we’re in it and we’re going to fight it all the way through.”

RLL Improvement

While neither of the RLL cars advanced out of the opening round of qualifying, they have looked vastly improved this weekend in comparison to the last two.

In St. Pete, they were 17th (Jack Harvey), 25th (Christian Lundgaard) and 26th (Graham Rahal). In Texas, they had the bottom three speeds with Rahal (26th), Harvey (27th) and Lundgaard (28th). This weekend, all three were better than 17th.

Lundgaard was 10th on Friday, Harvey in 12th and Rahal at 16th.

On Saturday morning, they were 11th (Rahal), 18th (Harvey) and 22nd (Lundgaard). They’d qualify 15th (Harvey), 17th (Lundgaard) and 24th (Rahal).

Rahal has qualified 20th, 24th and 24th this year but Harvey has his best start of the season (19th, 28th prior) and Lundgaard second best (11th, 27th prior).

Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach Starting Lineup:

Row 1: Kyle Kirkwood, Marcus Ericsson

Row 2: Romain Grosjean, Alex Palou

Row 3: Scott Dixon, Pato O’Ward

Row 4: Colton Herta, Josef Newgarden

Row 5: Scott McLaughlin, Felix Rosneqvist

Row 6: Alexander Rossi, Marcus Armstrong R

Row 7: Will Power, Simon Pagenaud

Row 8: Jack Harvey, Helio Castroneves

Row 9: Christian Lundgaard, Santino Ferrucci

Row 10: Rinus VeeKay, Devlin DeFrancesco

Row 11: Sting Ray Robb R, Callum Ilott

Row 12: Benjamin Pedersen R, Graham Rahal

Row 13: David Malukas, Agustin Canapino R

Row 14: Conor Daly

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