Kyle Kirkwood did not have a good rookie season in 2022. Driving for the oft-maligned A.J. Foyt Enterprises, he failed to finish 7 races and finished nearly dead last in points. Yet, when Alexander Rossi left IndyCar superpower Andretti Autosport in the offseason and vacated the iconic no. 27 Honda, Kirkwood was tabbed as the replacement. Some questioned the move. But on Sunday, Kirkwood proved the doubters wrong with a dominant win at the historic Grand Prix of Long Island.
Kirkwood put in a blistering lap during Saturday’s qualifying session, besting Marcus Ericsson and teammate Romain Grosjean for pole position. Starting out front on Sunday afternoon, he bolted out to an early lead before a lap 1 caution for Helio Castroneves bunched the field back up. Following the resumption of the race, he continued to lead comfortably.
Pato O’Ward, racing Scott Dixon for 6th, made an extremely late lunge inside of Dixon that resulted in side-by-side contact. Dixon was sent into the tire barriers, and was not pleased with the move when asked later. He was able to continue with damage, but eventually retired from the race from a mechanical failure. On the restart from the caution, O’Ward attempted a similar move on Kyle Kirkwood, but instead spun himself out, which he never recovered from and finished 17th. The ensuing chaos gave Josef Newgarden the lead, with Grosjean and Kirkwood in tow. Newgarden led the next 27 laps while Kirkwood, who quickly maneuvered around his Andretti teammate, gave chase. Kirkwood was able to easily follow Newgarden, and maintained his stuff while keeping Newgarden close.
When Newgarden made his final pitstop with 33 laps remaining, Kirkwood was able to stay out an extra 2 laps and build a gap on Newgarden by taking advantage of a clean racetrack in front of him. Kirkwood regained the lead once the pit sequence cycled through the field, and held off a hard-charging Grosjean in the final laps to secure his first career win. He led a total of 53 laps and had the fastest car; Andretti overall brought home a fantastic day with his cars finishing 1-2-4 (Devlin DeFrancesco, the Andretti-Steinbrenner entry, finished 16th.) Kirkwood’s previous best finish was 10th at Long Beach last year. Now, he’s an IndyCar winner.
“[It was] a little bit nerve-wracking there at the end to be honest because we thought we had a fuel number we needed to hit, all of a sudden it changed for about a lap,” Kirkwood said of the final laps and his first win. “I knew Romain had a ton of push to pass left. I don't know how much he saved fuel, how much he could use. It was a little bit scary. It was a little bit of a scary moment. But once I crossed the finish line, I was so happy, so happy for myself, so happy for the team, so happy for Michael, everyone that works so hard to make this happen. It's not just me, it's the entire group that works all year long. They work a lot harder than me if I'm being honest. To have my first win at Long Beach is something that's incredible. I know I'm going to cherish this moment and this day for the rest of my life.”
Romain Grosjean finished in second, his first podium (and his first race finished of the season after 2 DNFS). Following a rough start to the season for the entire team, he was content with securing the 1-2 for Andretti.
“I did not even want to try to go for the win today,” he said in his post race press conference. “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, Marcus mentioned he won St. Pete, kind of was mine, but it's okay, I give it to you. You got it anyway. 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.”
Grosjean can carry today’s result forward and build momentum for Barber in 2 weeks.
Ericsson is once again the NTT IndyCar Series points leader after his third place finish at Long Beach. His result, coupled with his win at St. Pete and a top 10 at Texas, gives him an excellent start to the 2023 championship hunt.
“It gives a lot of confidence,” Ericsson said. “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 I 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.”
Colton Herta and Alex Palou claimed the final two spots of the top 5, while Will Power, Felix Rosenqvist, Marcus Armstrong, Josef Newgarden, and Scott McLaughlin closed out the top 10.
As for the points standings, Marcus Ericsson is back out front of the field, with Pato O’Ward in second. Alex Palou and Josef Newgarden sit in third and fourth, respectively. Kirkwood’s win vaulted him from 20th to fifth.
A driver’s first win only comes once. And for Kirkwood it proves, not only to his competitors and critics but more importantly to himself, that he is capable of winning at the top level of American open-wheel racing.
“It's really just a moment of calmness for me. I've had almost like built-up anxiety that I haven't been able to do as well as I know I can do. The fact that I've actually been able to do it today, it's like okay, level off, calm down, now I'm going to be able to focus on getting wins now that I have my first one…”