Michael Andretti called Kyle Kirkwood the “real deal.” The 24-year-old Jupiter, Florida native rewarded his bosses’ comments about him. Kirkwood led the first 22 laps and the final 30 en route to his first career NTT INDYCAR SERIES victory in just his 20th start.
The Andretti Autosport driver drove a flawless race weekend for which saw him score the pole on Saturday and use that top starting position to become the third pole sitter in the last five years to win here.
The race started with a quick caution when Helio Castroneves lost control of his No. 06 Dallara-Honda in Turn 2 and hit the wall. On the ensuing restart, Kirkwood pulled away and opened up a gap of nearly two seconds before the second and final caution of the day flew on Lap 20 for Scott Dixon being hip checked into the tire barriers by Pato O’Ward in Turn 8.
That forced the leaders down pit road for their first stop. Kirkwood won the race off pit road. However, he wasn’t shown as the leader.
This is where Juncos Hollinger Racing used the first two cautions to shake up how this race would play out. On the opening lap crash from Castroneves, JHR brought both cars down pit lane on Lap 2 to get off the alternate tires for the primary ones. This indirectly played a role in how the Lap 25 restart would stack up.
So would Callum Ilott’s right front tire blowing on Lap 5 and having to pit to change tires again. He fell a lap down as a result of that.
Combine those factors and the Lap 20 caution and you get a perfect storm to create a wild turn of events.
Agustin Canapino stayed out of the pits while everyone else hit pit lane for their first stops. He led his first laps of his young INDYCAR career. Also, while wanting to help out his JHR teammate of Ilott to get his lap back, he slowed in Turn 1 to help Ilott come out in front.
By doing so, it stacked everyone up behind. Josef Newgarden was able to get by Kirkwood for the lead. O’Ward made a leap of faith to get Kirkwood too in Turn 8 but spun while doing so. Alex Palou and Marcus Ericsson had to slow to avoid contact and lost several spots in the process too.
Kirkwood was now in second while Newgarden looked like the one in prime position. The thing is, that Lap 20 caution did hurt his strategy though too.
Newgarden started on primary tires. Most everyone else was on the alternates. He would go from eighth to fourth by the first turn on the opening lap, then up to third before the Lap 20 yellow. If the race went the rest of that opening stint green, then it’s hard telling how this thing would have played out.
Instead, his advantage was now gone. On the second stint, Newgarden was on the alternates with Kirkwood on the primaries.
Newgarden had the lead on Lap 26 but Kirkwood was stalking him. On Lap 28, the lead was 1.2346-seconds. Two laps later, it was down to .8497-seconds. Three laps later, it was down to .7938-seconds. On Lap 35, it was .5425-seconds. 10 laps later, it was .4607-seconds. Kirkwood was maintaining his gap to Newgarden.
So, on Lap 52, Newgarden decided to pit for his final time. The alternate tires were falling off. The problem now was, he had 33 more laps to make it to the end and even with being on the primary tires, he was in a massive fuel save mode.
Kirkwood took the lead with Romain Grosjean in second. Grosjean pit on Lap 53 with Kirkwood a lap later. Alex Palou stayed out to lead Lap 55. When he pit, Kirkwood and Grosjean were now ahead of Newgarden.
No more stops and just enough fuel saving to make it to the end would shape a 1-2 Andretti finish.
Newgarden’s fuel saving efforts saw him make it to the end, but he lost six spots to finish ninth. Kirkwood took over the lead on Lap 56 and his advantage two laps later was 1.1814-seconds. 10 laps later, it was up to 2.3018-seconds.
Grosjean cut into that deficit and made this a race in the end. It went from 2.3-seconds to 1.0122-seconds in four laps. The thing is, Kirkwood just kept Grosjean at arms length now.
It was back up to 1.3898-seconds on Lap 73 then up to 1.5834-seconds on Lap 75. Three laps later, it was 1.3422-seconds. On Lap 80, it was 1.3112-seconds. On Lap 82, it was 1.0640-seconds. Could Grosjean with way more push to passes left mount a charge?
It was down to .9305-seconds at the white flag.
Kirkwood did enough over the final 1.968-miles to still score his maiden INDYCAR win while Grosjean had to settle for his fourth career runner-up finish including two straight years here.
Andretti Autosport/Chip Ganassi Racing Untouchable This Weekend And Could Have A Big Month Ahead too
While Pato O’Ward was quickest in Friday’s as well Saturday’s practice sessions, the Andretti Autosport and Chip Ganassi Racing camps were by far the best teams in the paddock this weekend on the streets of Long Beach.
6 of the top 7 starters belonged to the Ganassi and Andretti camps. 3 for each team. They swept the entire top five of the finishing order including 3 of the top 4 finishers belonging to Andretti’s at that.
“Unbelievable. We needed this bad,” Andretti said. “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.”
Andretti however, was a step above the Ganassi’s still in leading all but 30 laps and going 1-2. They’ve won 4 of the last 5 here while Ganassi has 1 win in their last 13 Long Beach tries.
Ganassi was led by Marcus Ericsson in third while Alex Palou and rookie Marcus Ericsson finished fifth and eighth respectively. For Ericsson, this was his 14th career Top-5 finish in his 66th start. Palou scored his 19th career top five in his 50th start.
Armstrong was the most glaring. In just his second career INDYCAR start, he nabs his first top 10 finish which was eighth in the end.
For Andretti, it was finally a chance to deliver. They were the top team I was watching this weekend because they’ve had great success here in Long Beach and fast race cars this season in general. It just hasn’t always translated into trophies.
On Sunday, they took home a pair of trophies on the podium with the win and runner-up.
7 wrecked race cars in a two-race span out the gates to the season had Andretti Autosport 11-17-20-28 in points. It definitely wasn’t the start to the season that they envisioned after making some changes between last year and this. It didn’t have to start off like this though.
A strong Thermal test led to a strong test in Sebring. That led to three cars being in the Fast Six in St. Pete including Romain Grosjean on the pole. Despite that, all four cars were collected in crashes that day.
Texas saw 3 of the 4 crashed once again.
Long Beach though was the time to put it all together.
Now, can both organizations dominate moving forward. Andretti swept both IMS road course races last year while Chip Ganassi Racing dominated the 2.5-mile oval.
First up though is Barber in two weeks.
Palou won in 2021 and was runner-up in 2022. Ericsson has two top 10’s in 3 starts there. Dixon has an astounding 9 podiums and 10 top fives in 12 starts including six runner-ups.
After Barber and the Month of May at Indy, it’s the inaugural race on the downtown streets of Detroit. Ganassi and Andretti have had the best cars on this street course package this season.
Grosjean Runner-up Again, But Can He Become A Championship Contender?
Romain Grosjean was bridesmaid once again. This was the fourth time in his NTT INDYCAR SERIES career that he’s been runner-up including two of which here now and two on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway road course.
While he was bummed to not have won, he was happy to give Andretti a 1-2.
Michael Andretti could be more thrilled with Grosjean by not over pushing it and to settling for that fifth podium in 33 starts. Grosjean says that it was a product of circumstances too. He knew with where they pit for the final time, pushing wasn’t going to be permitted since they had to save just enough fuel to get to the end. Same for his first stint. With where the second caution flew, it made the second stint one of fuel saving to get enough laps to have the next stop be the last one.
“First thing we’ve got to say is congratulations to the whole team, first, second, fourth,” Grosjean said. “It’s been awesome, a good weekend. Kyle (Kirkwood) has done an amazing job in qualifying and again in the race. I mean, he didn’t make any mistake in front of me. Couldn’t use any of that.
“We had a great strategy, did a very good job. Had a very fast car. Because the way the race turn up, I have to save a lot of fuel on the last stint. I had 188 second of push to pass left, but I was not allowed to use it. For once I saved too much, I guess.
“It sucks. I just wanted to push the button and I wasn’t allowed to.
“Yeah, it was tough. Then Marcus (Ericsson) was driving fast at the end of the race. I think, yeah, we did a tremendous job. Honda did amazing, as well. One, two, three, four, five. We have to note that. Bits and piece, we’re getting there.
“I would lie if I said I wouldn’t have loved to be on the top step of the podium today, and I thought I had a chance. Just the way the race turned out, the fuel situation was, it wasn’t possible.
“As a team, I think it’s very good where we are. The team has been working super hard through the winter to improve our pit stops. I believe in Texas I had the fastest pit stop of everyone. Here again we had fast pit stop.
“We knew that in lap and out lap were going to be critical. I was hoping that I was going to be the one going a lap longer than everyone else, but it was Kyle at the end. It’s normal, he was the leader. We had to cover Josef Newgarden. We did that well.
“Yeah, as I said, the fuel situation was not easy to manage through the end of the race. Created a lot of issues with brakes getting too cool, tires losing temperature. We had good cars and managed to get 1-2.”
That’s why Grosjean was never able to push the issue at Kirkwood for the win, but bigger picture was on his mind. Grosjean has a legitimate shot at a potential championship caliber of a season. While he entered this weekend 15th in points, he leaves in 7th (-39).
You also have to look at how good of a car he’s had this season. He was in the mix to win all three races thus far. He led 31 laps in St. Pete and cycled to the lead after the final pit stop sequence. However, Scott McLaughlin exited pit lane and fought back which unfortunately took both out on Lap 71 of 100 in the tire barriers.
In the next race at Texas, he crashed while running in the top five with two laps left.
Now, he has a finish to back up the speed.
“It’s better than finishing third two years in a row, I guess,” Grosjean joked about finishing runner-up twice here in as many years.
“You know what? I did not even want to try to go for the win today. It would have been taking too much risk. Kyle drove a brilliant weekend. He had the best strategy out there, but he was on pole.
“He was fast. He didn’t make any mistake. He drove well. He deserved the race.
“For me, it was more like after the two first races, kind of was mine, but it’s okay, I give it to you. You got it anyway (smiling).
“I think we’re strong everywhere. Today the race car wasn’t the best ever. I think we’re going to learn a few things and move forward. Generally we have a very fast car. Two weeks ago in Texas Motor Speedway, also showed I could do ovals.
“I think 2022 was definitely a very hard season. I couldn’t get the car to do what I wanted it to do. I couldn’t find the feel.
“I’ve been racing for 25 years. I still doubt myself sometimes. I believe I’m one of the best in the world, but sometimes I still think do I still have it, do I still know how to drive.
“That’s why some people are so important for me. That’s why Texas being in front was important. Like today, finishing second is important. I still know how to do it. I’ll be 37 tomorrow. I wish I win for my birthday, but P2, I take it.
“Yeah, when we speak in Laguna Seca, I want to be with those guys fighting for the championship, and I think we get a chance to do that.”
Next up is Barber. He has two top 10 finishes in as many tries including a seventh place run a year ago. Then it’s to the IMS road course to which he has two runner-up’s and a pole. A double points Indy 500 race then another street course after that has Grosjean in a position to be in the championship conversation again.
Championship Winning Weekend For Marcus Ericsson
Marcus Ericsson’s goal entering the 2022 NTT INDYCAR SERIES season 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 INDYCAR.
It paid off this weekend. He qualified on the front row and while he had nothing this weekend for the Andretti Autosport camp, he was the top non Andretti finisher with a podium finish in Sunday’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach.
Ericsson brought his No. 8 Dallara-Honda home in third for his ninth career podium finish. 7 of those 9 have come in his last 30 starts. He had just 2 in his previous 36.
With two podium finishes in three races run this season, Ericsson has the points lead leaving Long Beach.
“Yeah, I think it was a great weekend for us,” Ericsson boasted. “We had tying best qualifying results for me. I think we had a really good race going today.
“It gives a lot of confidence. I think we’ve been really strong. Last year already, we were fighting for the championship and leading the championship for a long time. Was disappointed to miss out on that. But used that as motivation this winter to work hard on myself and my team. I think we’ve come out even stronger this year.
“Winning in St. Pete showed that. We had a good weekend on a bad weekend in Texas, quite a good result. Here again this weekend, we had tremendous speed. We’re definitely in the fight. Leading the championship feels good, but it’s a long way to go. We need to keep focused and keep working hard.
“But, yeah, I’m really happy with the start of the year obviously.
“I love it. I think that was one of the biggest motivations for me coming over to INDYCAR, to get the chance to sort of show what I could do on top level racing.
“The INDYCAR championship, the competitiveness of the championship, especially this year, is just incredible. There’s so many good drivers and cars out there. To know every weekend you can go out and compete and fight for a win, the kind of drive you get from that is something I missed very much in my five years in Formula 1.
“Yeah, it’s great to be in that position now. To be in a great team in Chip Ganassi Racing, yeah, be out there and fight for wins and podiums, it’s a lot of fun.”
This is all part of a better focus in qualifying this season. His Achilles heel in 2022 was in that aspect. 9 times did he start 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. 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.”
Ericsson overcame an early race mishap when he was in the top five after the first round of pit stop. When Pato O’Ward spun while going for second with Kyle Kirkwood, Ericsson had to slow to avoid contact. He fell down to seventh as a result.
He didn’t quit though. He kept his head down and drove up four more spots for a podium.
“The only sort of issue we had in the race was that restart when Pato decided to dive down there and try to take out a lot of cars,” said Ericsson. “Got caught out in that. Had to almost stop the car. I think I lost five or six positions there. From there on, it was tough.
“I thought from my point of view it was a low-percentage move, early in the race, on a restart. I think he was trying to overtake two or three cars in two corners. That move on Kyle, he could have taken out me and Kyle and Romain, all of us.
“We had the pace in the car to fight for the win today. So it was a good recovery to come back and still finish on the podium. I think the pace on the last stint was amazing. Really, really happy.”
Palou Quietly Getting The Job Done
The drama in Alex Palou’s life is behind him. It started around this time last year and didn’t clear up until the season finale in Laguna Seca. Palou started the year off with three podiums in the opening four races but when Ganassi got word that the Spaniard was looking to leave the camp for McLaren, it got messy. Litigation and lawyers got involved for which caused Palou to sit in limbo.
That cost him on track performance. Palou would have just two podiums in his next 12 starts. When it became clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to leave, he and Ganassi spoke and cleared things up. He’d then win by a half-of-a-minute in the season finale.
This year, he’s off to another hot start. Palou on Sunday brought his No. 10 Dallara-Honda home in fifth to score his 19th top five result in his 50th career start. He was eighth in St. Pete, third in Texas and now fifth. If you go back to last year’s season finale, that’s three top fives in his last four tries.
As a result, he’s up to third in points and 19 out of the points lead.
Palou was even a factor in that Lap 25 incident for which Pato O’Ward spun under Kyle Kirkwood while going for second. The Spaniard had to slow to avoid running into O’Ward’s car which as a result, dropped him from a top five spot to 13th.
He’d gain eight more spots to get back in the top five in the end.
Next up is Barber which is a place he won his first career race at in 2021. He was runner-up last year. Palou is on his way to being in the mix once again for the championship.
Since Palou joined CGR in 2021, he’s had 16 top five finishes and 15 podiums in 36 starts.
Pato O’Ward vs. Scott Dixon The New Rivalry?
I wondered how Pato O’Ward would race on Sunday when he was relegated to a sixth starting spot. The Arrow McLaren Racing driver was quickest in both practice sessions prior and was fastest at the time with 54 seconds left in Q2. However, they put on new alternate tires and it was the wrong play. He lost a set and didn’t have the single lap pace in the final round which forced him to start in Row 3 instead of a likely front row appearance.
Would the 23-year-old become too aggressive on Sunday?
That’s exactly what he did.
O’Ward, likely sick of being runner-up in each of the first two races, stepped too far over the line in Sunday’s race. He was over the top and took a top five car to a finish outside the top 15 (17th place). That’s a big reason as to why it’s so difficult to top the Penske’s and Ganassi’s for championships. There’s a reason that they’ve won 10 straight Astor Cup’s.
O’Ward was in prime position to end their reign but days like he had on Sunday are reasons enough to keep him out of a championship later this year.
He was overzealous in making a move on Scott Dixon in Turn 8 on Lap 20. On the ensuring Lap 25 restart, he did so again in the same corner, this time to Kyle Kirkwood for second. He spun while doing so and dropped many spots.
O’Ward went from seven points up in the championship to 15 points behind heading to Barber Motorsports Park in two weeks. Luckily for him, he’s the defending race winner there.
The thing is, we may have a new rivalry on our hands too. I felt like the O’Ward vs. Josef Newgarden rivalry was being too forced. While they’ve had seven 1-2 finish since 2020, the respect was mutual between the two to spark a drama filled rivalry. I just didn’t see it happening.
However, do we get one between O’Ward and Scott Dixon?
Dixon says all gloves are off. O’Ward, a boxer, says he’s not going to apologize for their on track spat because he feels like he did nothing wrong. This is where this could get good…