LONG BEACH, Calif. — A week ago, Kyle Kirkwood was answering questions about whether or not he was at fault for a pit road incident at Texas that many were pitting on Kirkwood for being a “mistake by a young guy.” Now, Kirkwood is answering questions about how it feels to be a race winner in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Kirkwood, starting on his first career pole, led 53 of the 85 allotted laps of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach on Sunday cruising to his first-ever win in America’s top open-wheel racing series.
“My team made it easy on me,” Kirkwood said in Victory Lane. “(Michael Andretti) was really the one that kept my head cool. Once Newgarden got in front of us at one point in that race, he had me push a few laps, then calm down, and try to get Newgarden to use up his tires. I think we played a fantastic strategy with all that.”
Like most street course races tire degradation was a major factor in the race between the softer and faster red tires and the slower, but more durable black primary tires.
Josef Newgarden pitted off sequence at the mid-point of the race to try and force his opponents competing for the lead into a game of cat and mouse on strategy. Newgarden would end up leading 27 laps.
“He’s smart. He is so smart,” Kirkwood said of Newgarden. “I feel like I’m good in those situations, but he’s better because there is a lot of times where I’m trying to push him to use his tires, and he’s not falling for it. I’m trying to push him to use his overtake, and he’s still not falling for it. He knows exactly when to turn it up and when to turn it back.”
On lap 52, Newgarden pitted from the lead. But when Kirkwood, running second, pitted two laps later and was able to exit out in front of Newgarden and two extra laps to the good on fuel over Newarden. Newgarden would be forced to conserve for the rest of the race and would finish 9th, following up his race win at Texas two weeks ago.
In the final 20 laps, the race was between Andretti Autosport, Kirkwood, Romain Grosjean, and Colton Herta, as well as Chip Ganassi drivers Marcus Ericsson and Alex Palou.
After beating Newgarden off pit road, Kirkwood opened up a sizable lead on his teammate, Grosjean who had twice as much push-to-pass as Kirkwood. Still, Kirkwood managed his tires well while being good to the end of the race on fuel.
He held off a charging Grosjean to take the checkered flag for the first time in his young IndyCar career.
“It’s awesome for Kyle; I’m happy for him,” Grosjean said. “I wish I was in his position right now, but he drove a hell of a race, like a champ, the whole weekend. He deserved that. We tried everything we could on our end, but it was a fuel situation, so we couldn’t really attack.”
Kirkwood’s car owner Michael Andretti said the win is big for him but also the team’s momentum into the rest of the year.
“This is going to really help especially rolling into Indy in a few races,” Andretti said. “This always puts an extra bounce in everybody’s step. Yeah, we’re very excited about the rest of the year.”
Three Andretti cars finished in the top five. Ericsson was third for Ganassi, with Herta (Andretti) and Palou (Ganassi) finishing out the top five.
Even though the series’ next race is in two weeks at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama, teams will be turning their attention to the oval at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this coming week as they will begin testing for the upcoming Indianapolis 500.
Testing will last from April 20-21st.
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