Kyle Kirkwood used a tire advantage to maximum effect to claim the first NTT IndyCar Series pole position of his career at Long Beach on Saturday.
Kirkwood’s 1m06.2878s in the No.27 Andretti Autosport Honda was just enough to see off a late challenge from Ganassi’s Marcus Ericsson — the Swede ultimately came up just 0.03s short — but the tone for the final battle for pole was actually set in the previous session, when Ericsson’s teammate Marcus Armstrong hit the wall in the final two minutes.
That set up a late scramble: under IndyCar’s qualifying rules, the remaining cars in the group were given 30s after the green flag to take the opportunity for a single final flyer. That, in turn, created an additional complication. Use the final set of stickered alternates to secure a spot in the Fast 6, or try to get into the Fast 6 with the tires that are already on the car and use the last set to try for pole?
Kirkwood went for Option B. Everyone else went for Option A. And by the time the Fast 6 was over, several of them were wishing they hadn’t.
“I’m ecstatic,” said Kirkwood immediately after climbing from the car. “Our car is on fire this weekend. We’re constantly chipping away at it, getting it better and better. Third weekend with the team and I’ve already got a pole. I couldn’t be happier.
“I knew this day would come. I didn’t know if it was going to come this early; there are a lot of tough guys out here. It’s kind of solidifying myself; it’s kind of, ‘He can do this.’ Starting from the pole, a lot of people win from the pole… It’s a good moment, no doubt.”
KIRKWOOD TO THE TOP
Ride onboard with NTT P1 Award winner @KKirkwoodRacing. #INDYCAR // #AGPLB pic.twitter.com/n8oYq6TMSg
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 15, 2023
Ericsson, while just short of the ultimate prize, was still pleased to have earned a front row start for Sunday’s race, while Kirkwood’s teammate Romain Grosjean, who will line up third, was one of several who coulda, woulda, shoulda.
“I had it,” he said. “I messed up at the hairpin and I think I lost about three tenths. It’s my fault — I braked too late, got the rear locking and had to pull the clutch in the middle of the corner to try to keep it going. We didn’t have an easy session; we got really blocked in Q2 then we got the red flag and had to use the new tires to get into the Fast Six. I knew Kyle was going to be good, he’s been driving well all weekend. Really happy for him and all the Andretti team. I think I had it, I just didn’t put it together.”
The driver on the other end of the blocking that Grosjean referred to was Ganassi’s Alex Palou, who had slowed because he had another car ahead of him. The incident was investigated and dismissed by race control, and Palou will line up alongside Grosjean on the second row.
Scott Dixon and Pato O’Ward completed the Fast Six, and it looked a lot like one that got away for O’Ward in particular. The Arrow McLaren driver had been fastest when the red came out, but the No. 5 team didn’t feel confident that his time would stand when everyone else did their last flyer on stickers, and sent him out — albeit at the back of the pack, where they could have the luxury of monitoring everyone else. As soon as it became clear that his passage to the Fast Six was safe, engineer Will Anderson sent repeated pleas over the radio for O’Ward to back off and save his tires. Those instructions appear to have gone unheeded.
O’Ward is far from the only driver left to ponder what might have been, though. Colton Herta took the same gamble to save the new rubber for the Fast Six as Kirkwood, but in his case it resulted in his being bumped to seventh at the end of the second round.
Just behind Herta are two-thirds of Team Penske, with Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin qualifying eighth and ninth respectively.
“Frustrating,” Newgarden said. “I think there’s time in the car, I just can’t extract it. I can’t put the lap together. I don’t know where we are at on the long run this weekend, but certainly in the short run it’s been hard to put together.”
Compounding Team Penske’s irritation, Newgarden had also been responsible for bumping Will Power out of the opening round.
“We had fuel for four plus three, and I did my three and didn’t do four in the first round because it went red,” said Power, who will start 13th. “I missed out by that amount to Newgarden last year for the top six. Same thing.
“It’s difficult (to try something with strategy) with the two stops. If it was three stops, you could do some big strategy stuff. The two stops with the small windows make it harder, but we’ll do what we can.”
The red flag that Power referred to was prompted by a big crash by David Malukas in the No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing w/HMD Honda. Malukas hit the wall at Turn 9 and continued on in the belief that the car had not been seriously damaged. The first indication that it had not came at Turn 4, when it speared itself into the outside wall as soon as he hit the brakes.
Qualifying is done for @malukasdavid after this incident in Round 1.#INDYCAR // #AGPLB pic.twitter.com/AOUQAZ5vZz
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 15, 2023
“I just have a little bit of a headache,” said Malukas after he emerged from the medical center.
“It was unfortunate. I started the lap previous and looked at the data and knew I had to brake a little bit deeper to catch up some time into Turn 9. So I tried braking a little bit deeper and was probably two laps too early, so I ended up losing the car and tapped the wall on the left.
“I gave the car a bit of a shake going down the straight and it felt OK but clearly it wasn’t, so going into Turn 4 I went in and hit the brake and it just whipped out on me and I couldn’t save it. At that point I was just letting go and taking the impact. My mistake. I had a chance to pit and maybe we could have fixed something and kept going, so two mistakes on my part.”
Malukas will need further evaluation before being cleared to race tomorrow.