A day before Kyle Kirkwood led 53 of 85 laps en route to his maiden NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory, the 24-year-old Jupiter, Florida native scored his first career pole in the series as well. His boss, Michael Andretti, said that Kirkwood was the “real deal” in the post qualifying press conference.
24 hours later, Kirkwood lived up to the billing.
He led the first 22 laps and the final 30 to give Andretti Autosport their 71st career INDYCAR win and fourth in the last five years at the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach. Three of those four belonged to his very No. 27 Dallara-Honda that Kirkwood is piloting.
See, this was likely always going to be his destination. Kirkwood scored 10 wins for Andretti in the 2021 Indy Lights season en route to a championship. He also had four runner-ups to tally 14 top two finishes in 20 tries. That came after nine wins in a championship winning season in the 2019 Indy Pro 2000 Series. That came a year after Kirkwood had 12 wins and a runner-up in the 14 race USF2000 campaign.
Three years, 31 wins, seven runner-ups and three championships in 50 starts.
That is the “real deal.” But, how would that translate over to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES. Unfortunately, Andretti didn’t have any room at the inn for the 2022 season.
Devlin DeFrancesco would replace the departing James Hinchcliffe. Romain Grosjean was in favor of Ryan Hunter-Reay. With Colton Herta locked up for a long time and Alexander Rossi coming into his final year of his contract with Andretti, Kirkwood had to look elsewhere.
His Andretti aspirations for last season were dependent on Andretti’s F1 endeavors. If they could get into Alfa Romeo/Sauber, then Herta was going with them which as a result, would allow Kirkwood to step into the 25 seat. However, that didn’t end up happening.
So, Andretti looked for an alternative option. In came AJ Foyt Racing. However, it was almost a loaner opportunity with Andretti retaining Kirkwood’s rights despite the venture.
The path looked clear that Rossi wouldn’t return in 2023, so this was a one year stop gap. It was a perfect fit too.
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.”
This pole and race win 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.
On Saturday, 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.
On Sunday, he had a car capable of winning. That’s half the battle. The other half is getting it home where it’s lined up to finish. Kirkwood drove flawlessly leading 53 of 85 laps and got the job done.
“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.
“He knows how to win. That’s the thing. There’s a lot of guys that just don’t know how to win. You can tell when he was out front, he knew what he needed to do.
“He’s a very smart guy, very confident guy in his own ability. Yeah, he’s got all the ingredients to be a future champion many times over.
“We needed this bad. The way we started off the year with really fast cars, not getting any results. It’s nice to get the results we did. 1-2-4 is not a bad day. This is going to really help especially rolling into Indy in a few races. This always puts an extra bounce in everybody’s step. Yeah, we’re very excited about the rest of the year.
“It’s huge. I know he’s going to remember this day for a long, long time. Well, forever, I think.”