Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network) race preview

The entire top five of the NTT INDYCAR SERIES points standings will roll off inside of the top 4 Rows for Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach (3 p.m. ET, NBC, INDYCAR Radio Network). The only three not?

The Andretti Autosport trio.

Andretti has won 3 of the last 4 years here. Also, 6 of the last 7 races were won here via a top four starter. Andretti has Kyle Kirkwood (1st) and Romain Grosjean (3rd). Colton Herta starts seventh.

Good omen?

Kirkwood is in Alexander Rossi’s old ride. That’s the one that led 71 of 85 laps in the 2018 win and 80 of 85 a year later. Can Kirkwood have similar fate?

The thing is, he’s still very raw. Sunday will mark the 24-year-olds 20th career start. The Jupiter, Florida native is known to push too hard when things go awry. Same thing for his teammate in Grosjean. He crashed in going for the win after the final stop in St. Pete. He then crashed on the last lap in the last race at Texas.

Herta does the same thing. When pushing hard a few years ago in Nashville, a race he was sure to win, he crashed. When pushing too hard coming to pit road on his second stop here a year ago, he also crashed.

What happens if these three drivers face some sort of adversity on Sunday?

Maybe this is where Chip Ganassi Racing steps in.

Ganassi has Marcus Ericsson (2nd) and Alex Palou (4th).

Marcus Ericsson at the 2023 Long Beach Grand Prix – Photo Credit: INDYCAR Media Site

Ericsson has his best career start in a season that he’s vowing for qualifying improvement. He won from fourth in St. Pete. That was his fourth career trip to victory lane. 3 of those 4 have come on street courses. Long Beach isn’t one of them. Will it be on Sunday?

He’s already won the Indy 500, why not the second most prestigious race on the INDYCAR calendar?

Where Ericsson has wanted to improve in qualifying, Palou has seen growth on these types of tracks.

The 2021 series champion would admit that street courses used to be his Achilles Heel in this series.

“I’m really, really happy about that,” he said of his recent street course results. “Street courses, I think when I first joined INDYCAR, I just did like three races on street courses before joining INDYCAR, so I think it’s just experience and confidence. Yeah, getting more confidence every time, and hopefully we can keep on scoring good results on street courses.”

He had 3 podiums and 5 top 6’s in 5 tries on these tracks last season including a runner-up a third place finish here. He starts fourth.

One problem – none of the top four starters have won here before. Scott Dixon in fifth has. He won the final 2 street course races last year and was on the podium in St. Pete.

Ganassi though, despite 3 drivers in the top five of the starting lineup, has just 1 win in the last 12 Long Beach races too.

Does this open the door up for someone else?

Pato O’Ward was quickest in both practice sessions this weekend. He was quickest in qualifying….until a strategy play went awry in the second round. They were on top of the leaderboard. They still put on fresh alternate tires. Kirkwood stayed on scuffs. So did Herta and Josef Newgarden. Kirkwood was fine but that was the limit. Herta and Newgarden were bumped out. Ericsson on new tires bumped his way in. So did Palou, who also was on fresh tires. Grosjean and Dixon played it safe on fresh tires too.

O’Ward ended up not needing them and wasted his efforts. That cost him in the Fast Six. Kirkwood delivered on being the only one on fresh tires.

O’Ward starts sixth but was runner-up in each of the two races this season too. Does the five drivers in front falter for which O’Ward scores his first win of the season as the points leader?

Ericsson has been known to do so which is why he’s second in points. Dixon ranks third in points and is a top five machine. Newgarden and Palou are fourth and fifth respectively.

Newgarden is struggling to extract speed but still starts eighth. He has three consecutive top two finishes here including a win last year. He won last race. He can easily capitalize on the misfortunes of the Andretti camp if they should arise and if Ganassi struggles to return to victory lane here.

However, the two drivers behind these five in points had troubles. David Malukas crashed in qualifying and will be reevaluated on Sunday morning after experiencing a headache from his Q2 crash. He starts 25th. Callum Ilott crashed in the morning practice and struggled to regain his Friday pace. He’ll roll off 22nd.

Scott McLaughlin starts ninth on Sunday. Alexander Rossi and Will Power are 11th and 13th respectively. Which is why the 48th edition of this race is going to be a wild one to see who can escape troubles and respond to adversity to score a huge win.

6 of the last 7 Long Beach race winners have each finished in the top three in the final standings including three ending up champions and two more being runner-up.

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