Once again, a first-time IndyCar winner has been crowned at the Grand Prix of Long Beach. Kyle Kirkwood, after starting on the pole and executing outstanding pit strategy, took the checkered flag first while holding off his teammate Romain Grosjean and defending Indianapolis 500 winner Marcus Ericsson.
“The next best place to have your first win would probably be Indianapolis,” said Kirkwood in the post-race press conference.
“I think it’s safe to say this won’t be the last time we see Kyle Kirkwood in victory lane,” said Kirkwood’s race strategist Bryan Herta to NBC Sports after the race.
Kirkwood, in his third start for Andretti Autosport, dominated nearly every session of the weekend. He set a blistering qualifying lap that in turn guaranteed ideal track position for the start of the race. Despite having the fastest car, Kirkwood still had to defend against the hottest drivers in the series.
“Fate didn’t go our way for strategy,” said 9th place finisher and Texas winner Josef Newgarden. Newgarden, who challenged Kirkwood for the lead throughout the race, had his race’s strategy go awry when an ill-timed caution ruined the team’s tire advantage.
“If there was no yellow in the beginning of the race, I think we would have been real pretty,” said Newgarden to NBC Sports.
The aforementioned ill-timed caution came mid-way through the first pit cycle when Pato O’Ward made an overly ambitious move on Scott Dixon in turn 8. The two drivers made contact and Dixon was sent into the tire barriers.
Dixon, speaking with NBC Sports after his retirement, criticized O’Ward’s move stating: “If that’s how the series wants us to race, then I guess it’s all gloves off from that point.”
O’Ward responded to Dixon’s comment following the race’s conclusion, stating that he “wouldn’t apologize for that.”
Following the incident, the remainder of the race was relatively calm, but featured some compelling pit strategy. Both Grosjean and Ericsson were able to make significant gains throughout the field and springboard themselves closer to the leader Kirkwood.
However, Kirkwood’s pace on track and on pit lane was still hard to beat. After the final pit stop, both Grosjean and Kirkwood still needed to save fuel in order to make it to the end.
“We thought we had a fuel number that we needed to hit and then it suddenly changed,” said Kirkwood.
Kirkwood’s out lap helped him gap his teammate to a safe interval following his final pit stop of the day. Even with three full laps worth of “push-to-pass”, Grosjean did not have the track position to catch his teammate.
“It was one of the least nerve-wracking races I’ve ever had in IndyCar, to be honest,” said Kirkwood in the post-race press conference. “Hopefully this is just the first of many.”
In the championship race, Kirkwood’s win vaulted him from 20th to 5th in the points standings as the Month of May creeps closer. Kirkwood noted that during his time in the Road to Indy program, once he got his first win, he was able to build momentum and continue to bring home victories.
The NTT IndyCar Series heads to Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama next on April 30th, the final race before Indianapolis 500 festivities are set to begin. If Kirkwood’s history in the feeder series is any indication, this might not be his only win of the season.