First career pole. Near-perfect race. First career win. Kyle Kirkwood has a long NTT IndyCar Series career ahead of him, but regardless of what the future brings, it’s a safe bet that he won’t forget the 2023 Long Beach race in a hurry.
Pretty much every element of the race that he could control was executed with perfection. His start was on point, he nailed the restarts, and in what proved to be the clutch move of the race, he was able to stretch his middle stint one lap further than the cars he was racing against, setting him up to defend from a position of strength for the final stint.
“This is amazing,” he said after climbing from Andretti Autosport’s No.27 Honda. “Oh my gosh. What a day. The calmest day I’ve had in two years, and it was a win. We got a little unlucky with some traffic and fell back, but kept our heads straight… awesome pit stops… and came away with the win at Long Beach. I was so happy with just the pole yesterday, but I’m over the moon right now. This is incredible.”
The only time he looked in any real danger was immediately after the first round of stops. Team Penske had been among the few to start the race on the harder primary tire, which meant Josef Newgarden had the early advantage of the softer alternate tire for the second stint, and wasted no time in taking advantage of it to duck into the lead when Kirkwood got tangled up in an odd scrap for near-last between the Juncos Hollinger Racing cars, which had been shuffled to the front of the pack.
Close call in the pits!@KKirkwoodRacing beat @josefnewgarden off pit lane.#INDYCAR // #AGPLB pic.twitter.com/HOoHXyVqIx
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 16, 2023
Newgarden held the lead through the entire middle stint, but Kirkwood remained in range and turned the wick up when the No. 2 Chevrolet had to make its second stop. When Kirkwood emerged from his own visit to pitlane, he did so comfortably in front.
His cause was no doubt helped near the end by the fact that the car immediately behind him was that of teammate Romain Grosjean, who had literally more push-to-pass than he knew what to do with: enough to get him into the lead, but at the likely cost of not having enough fuel keep him there.
“Awesome for Kyle, very happy for him,” Grosjean said. “Obviously I wish I was in his position right now, but he drove a hell of a race, like a champ, all weekend. We tried everything we could, but we had a few situations and couldn’t really attack.”
Third place was less than Chip Ganassi Racing’s Marcus Ericsson hoped for, but it was an solid salvage job after he shaking off contact with Pato O’Ward during the first stint.
“I think we had the speed to win, but unfortunately got involved in that incident when Pato divebombed a few guys and hit my front wing, and I got some damage and lost five or six positions,” he said. “Bit of an uphill battle from there, but we showed the pace and made some good overtakes, which was fun, and I was catching the leaders towards the end, so the speed was there.”
The incident in question was triggered by Pato O’Ward carrying way too much speed into Turn 8 and spinning, sending cars skittering around him. A few laps earlier he’d been involved in another incident at the same corner when he made a big lunge to the inside of Scott Dixon. The pair made side-to-side contact that sent Dixon into the barriers and brought out a yellow.
“I was on the inside, [Dixon] decided to stay on the outside, and I was petty much alongside him,” O’Ward said.
“I don’t know what to say. I’ve been racing Scott for a few years, and if he feels like it is my fault then I’m sorry you feel that way but I don’t agree.
“The other issue that I had in Turn 8… completely my fault, I feel bad that I let my team down. By the time I remembered to stop the car it was too late and I squeezed myself. I didn’t want to take out Kirkwood so I locked the brakes and spun. It’s definitely been a weekend… not to forget, there’s a lot of positives I can take out of the weekend, but disappointed in myslef. I don’t have to be making those stupid moves. I’m not up to the level that I expect of myself.”
The incident @PatricioOWard's referring to. pic.twitter.com/002ARs8KZY
— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) April 16, 2023
Dixon was able to continue, but later dropped out of the race with an oil pressure problem.
“That [move] seemed extremely late,” he said. “I understand there’s tire deg and all that stuff going on, but I wouldn’t have chosen to do that. But if that’s how the series wants us to race then it’s gloves off from this point and that’s how it will be. So, disappointed with that.
“I don’t know what happened at the end; we passed the 60 car and lost drive. Frustrating day. It was going to be hard on the strategy we were on, Plus the start was a joke as well. I don’t know what they are calling up there, but it seemed like row six or five went before the leader did.”
Colton Herta climbed from seventh to fourth to complete an Andretti Autosport 1-2-4, leaving Alex Palou to complete a somewhat more adventurous journey to the top five.
“It was a bit of a sour day today for us,” he said. “We had a strong car; we were running really well at the beginning then caught up in Pato’s incident and I got stuck there and saw a lot of cars flying by. I think we were 12th or 13th. So, super-happy that we recovered back to fifth, great pit stops, the speed of the car was amazing, so looking forward to Barber now.”
Newgarden’s challenge faded in the final part of the race due to a problem that he didn’t identify other than to describe as “brutal,” leaving Will Power as Team Penske’s top finisher with a masterclass in fuel saving to climb from 13th to sixth. Also notable was Ganassi youngster Marcus Armstrong, who had what he considered to be a pretty uneventful afternoon in his second IndyCar start, but still planted the No. 11 inside the top 10 with an eighth.
An opening-lap crash by Helio Castroneves threatened to set the tone for another afternoon of concrete canyon chaos, but outside of O’Ward’s adventures at Turn 8 the race was largely incident-free. The only notable exception came right at the end, when Arrow McLaren’s hopes of seeing two cars inside the top 10 were derailed by Alexander Rossi’s car suffering a suspension failure and finding the wall with one lap to go.