Kyle Kirkwood (No. 27 AutoNation Honda) became the latest star to emerge from the NTT IndyCar Series when the 24-year-old driver cruised to a convincing victory in Sunday’s 48th Annual Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach
“This feels amazing,” Kirkwood said in the victory circle. “And to do it at Long Beach, which is such a fantastic race that I have been watching since I was a little kid. I have always wanted to win here. This is a special moment for me. My hat is off to everyone at Andretti Autosports. They crushed it today. I think we can win a lot of races this year.”
Kirkwood, of Juniper, Fla, led for 53 laps of the 85-lap race on the twisting 11-turn, 1.98-mile temporary street circuit, crossing the finish line one second ahead of his Andretti Autosports teammate Romain Grosjean (No. 28 DHL Honda) and Marcus Ericsson (No. 8 Ganassi Huski Chocolate Honda).
After earning his first career pole in Saturday’s qualifying, Kirkwood held the lead in the opening laps of the race before a lap 26 caution restart allowed last year’s race winner Josef Newgarden (No. 2 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet), to slip past him.
Newgarden would hold the lead over the next 27 laps, but as is often the case at Long Beach, pit strategy would play a major role in the outcome.
With his soft compound tires beginning to fade, Newgarden elected to complete his final pit stop just inside his fuel window on lap 52. Grosjean came in for his final stop a lap later and leapfrogged Newgarden. Kirkwood came in on lap 54 and was able to return to the track ahead of both of them.
Kirkwood would remain in front for the remainder of the race, controlling the pace to not allow Grosjean to get close enough for the opportunity to make a pass, while Newgarden slowly fell back to ninth as he tried to conserve fuel to make it to the finish.
“It’s awesome for Kyle, and I’m happy for him and the whole team. A 1-2 finish here is awesome,” said Grosjean, who also finished second at Long Beach last year. “I was a little short on fuel near the end so I could not use my push to pass. Also, Kyle drove a champion’s race. He was fast and he didn’t make any mistakes. I never had a place to attack without taking too much risk.”
Ericsson was able to crawl back up to third to complete the podium after a mid-race close encounter with Pato O’Ward (No. 5 Arrow/McLaren Chevrolet) dropped him down to sixth in the running order, and Colton Herta (No. 26 Gainbridge Honda) finished in fourth giving Andretti Autosports three of the top four.
The race was a huge shot in the arm for the Andretti Autosports team that had suffered through a dismal 2022 season in which none of the team’s four drivers finished higher than ninth in the season points.
With the departure of Alexander Rossi after the season ended, the team brought in Kirkwood, who had raced for Andretti Motorsports in Indy Lights in 2020 and 2021, to replace him.
“He’s the real deal. We knew it a long time ago when he won the championship for us in the Indy Lights series. He was something special,” team owner Michael Andretti said. “I am proud of our whole team. We did a great job across the board. We worked really hard over the winter to get back up front”
Andretti also decided to shake things up by shuffling team mangers, moving Bryan Herta, Colton’s father, from his son’s car to leading the effort for Kirkwood.
“He is so good, he kept me calm the whole day,” Kirkwood said of Herta’s guidance over the radio during the race. “On the cool down lap he told me to take a moment, look at everything, and soak it in. It nearly put me in tears.”
The next event of the 2023 NTT IndyCar Series season is the Children’s of Alabama Indy Grand Prix on Sunday, April 30 at Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Ala.
Stockton 99 Speedway
Stockton 99 Speedway will open its 74th season of racing with a special Sunday afternoon program featuring the Stockton Late Models, Street Stocks, B-4s and B-4 Juniors on April 23 beginning at noon. In all, there will be 13 racing dates with 11 featuring the Stockton Late Models and two headed by the Spears SRL Southwest Tour Super Late Models and Pro Late Models.