PRUETT: Some surprise takeaways from IndyCar's Thermal test

James Black/Penske Entertainment

PRUETT: Some surprise takeaways from IndyCar's Thermal test

Insights & Analysis

PRUETT: Some surprise takeaways from IndyCar's Thermal test


If the things I saw at Spring Training hold firm through the September 10 finale at Laguna Seca, we’re in for one heck of a season.

Two drivers starred at the test, and I couldn’t be happier for them as sophomore Kyle Kirkwood was the fastest person across Thursday and Friday for Andretti Autosport and rookie Agustin Canapino silenced a lot of doubters with his efforts for Juncos Hollinger Racing. Those are two outcomes I didn’t have on my Thermal bingo card.

Starting with Kirkwood, the Floridian and race engineer Jeremy Milless clearly have the potential to do big things in 2023 with the No. 27 Honda. Partnered with Milless at CFH Racing/Ed Carpenter Racing from 2015-2016, Josef Newgarden captured his first IndyCar wins — three in total — and placed fourth in the championship before Roger Penske acquired his services. Paired with Alexander Rossi in the No. 27 entry, seven more wins were taken from 2017-2022, with Rossi placing as high as second in the Drivers’ standings with Milless.

The overriding message here is how Milless, a 20-plus-year veteran of IndyCar, is able to connect with young drivers and make speed. On average from the three test sessions where the No. 27 participated (the second session was lost while fixing the clutch), Kirkwood ran P2, P3 and P1.

Teammate Colton Herta was fastest in both of Thursday’s sessions with the No. 26 Honda, leaving Andretti Autosport with a 75-percent strike rate at the test. As a whole, Andretti Autosport had to be pleased with its performance at Thermal with Herta and Kirkwood going 1-2 Thursday morning, Herta and Romain Grosjean in the No. 28 Honda going 1-4 Thursday afternoon, Kirkwood leading the team in P3 during the third session and closing the test in P1.

Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson was the only other driver to lead a session, taking the third outing with his No. 8 Honda.

Canapino’s JHR team was the other revelation during Spring Training as sophomore Callum Ilott placed his No. 77 Chevy inside the top 10 in three of the four sessions, topping it off with P2 behind Kirkwood on Friday afternoon. But it was the Argentinian rookie who caught my attention with runs to P22, P20, P23, and P20.

For a driver who was expected to take ownership of P27 and last due to his drastic lack of open-wheel experience, Canapino and the No. 78 Chevy were faster than Graham Rahal’s No. 15 Honda in every session, faster than Ed Carpenter Racing’s Conor Daly in three of four outings, quicker than A.J. Foyt Racing’s Santino Ferrucci in four out of four runs, faster than Meyer Shank Racing’s Helio Castroneves in half the sessions, and led all rookies, with the exception of CGR’s Marcus Armstrong, at the test.

Canapino’s transition from touring cars got off to an encouraging start. James Black/Penske Entertainment

We can attribute some of Canapino’s performance to the site of Spring Training; with every team and driver starting from scratch with zero circuit knowledge in an IndyCar, it was a level playground for all to figure out. When we get to St. Petersburg or Texas Motor Speedway and the other circuits where most of the field knows the tricks to extracting maximum speed each lap, the 33-year-old touring car champion will face a much tougher task. Running ahead of the series’ veterans and the rookies who’ve been to the same tracks in junior open-wheel categories and have a solid base of oval experience to draw from their time in Indy Lights is where Canapino’s real challenge is found.

Nonetheless, he more than justified the decision by Ricardo Juncos and Brad Hollinger to place him in a full-time ride. And if you like underdogs, JHR and the duo of Ilott and Canapino are the best IndyCar has to offer this season.

Elsewhere, the Ganassi team was strong throughout the test as Alex Palou and the No. 10 Honda and Scott Dixon and his No. 9 Honda featuring new race engineer Ross Bunnell spent seven of the eight sessions inside the top 10. Within their camp, Armstrong offered the best news for the team as the New Zealander was fast and comfortable in his first outing with the program; on average from the four sessions, the Kiwi had names like Josef Newgarden, Rossi, and Pato O’Ward in his rearview mirrors.

A few more drivers stood out at Spring Training throughout Thursday and Friday. Although Honda-powered drivers led every session and often took most of the top four or five positions, Team Penske’s Will Power was a vision of focus and intent as he placed between P4 and P6 whenever he strapped into the No. 12 Chevy and he was often the quickest Bowtie representative at the Thermal Club. Teammate Scott McLaughlin ran between P3 and P8 in all but one session, and with a new race engineer to jell with in Luke Mason, Newgarden did well to hold between P5 to P10 in three of the four outings.

Separated from their teammates, MSR’s Simon Pagenaud and Rahal Letterman Lanigan’s Christian Lundgaard were fixtures near the front with the Dane earning P2 in a pair of sessions and the relaxed Frenchman peaking at P3.

In the mix at Spring Training, we had a resurgent Andretti Autosport with Kirkwood suggesting he’s ready to help Herta carry the load and Grosjean showing more connection and pace in his car. We also had Juncos Hollinger as a team that’s poised to punch above its weight and collective experience, a Ganassi squad that appears to bear no lingering effects from a turbulent 2022 season, and a Terminator-esque reigning champion in Will Power who is locked into the same approach that worked so well last year.

Within MSR and RLL, bigger and better finishes are within the grasp of Pagenaud and Lundgaard, and within the frequent leaders at the Thermal Club, we had a delightful blend of young chargers like Palou, Ilott, Lundgaard, Herta, Kirkwood, and Armstrong, and IndyCar’s long-standing fixtures in Power, Dixon, Pagenaud, and more who were knocking on the door with Newgarden, Ericsson, and McLaughlin.