until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League


Kirkwood’s win wasn’t a breakthrough. That’s still to come

by Jack Benyon
5 min read

until Abu Dhabi Autonomous Racing League

If you were watching Kyle Kirkwood look totally comfortable in control of the IndyCar field at Long Beach and thought you’d seen this before, you have.

The prodigious junior talent took over 40 wins and three consecutive titles charting the Road to Indy ladder before reaching IndyCar. So those calling his Long Beach win a breakthrough might do well to remember those junior series performances and what they showed he was capable of.

Indy Lights

Because while IndyCar is one of the most competitive elite single-seater championships out there, it’s no surprise Kirkwood – as someone who is used to dominating races from the front – felt much more assured back in his ‘home’ spot of being out in clean air controlling his own destiny.

Asked about that by The Race, Kirkwood said: “I tell you what, it’s a lot easier when you’re out front than when you’re 18th. I can tell you that much!

“You control everything from the front, which is something that I was used to.

“Not to sound cocky or anything, but I was very used to that in the Road to Indy: leading races, controlling pace, understanding what I needed to do to save tyres, the car in general, make sure I could hit all my marks lap after lap after lap, be consistent.

“When you’re in the middle, you’re pushing non-stop, trying to keep people from passing you, dive-bombing you. You’re trying to cycle forward, get passes done.

“Yeah, it is more comfortable for me being out front. It was one of the least nerve-racking races I’ve ever had in IndyCar, if I’m being honest.”

Scott McLaughlin had a similar feeling, having come from three championships in the Supercars series to Team Penske in IndyCar.

While getting to the front in IndyCar is not easy and your race can be undone by strategy or a caution at any second, some of these drivers appear to have a switch that they flick that makes them formidable when presented with a lead and clean air.

Of course, the Long Beach win wasn’t totally as simple as that because Kirkwood had to avoid crashing into Agustin Canapino on the first restart – Canapino had hit the wall on the inside and basically stopped in front of Kirkwood, which gave Josef Newgarden the lead via diving to the inside.

Kylekirkwood Acuragrandprixoflongbeach By Travishinkle Largeimagewithoutwatermark M76647

But it was like the smell of the front of the field kept Kirkwood in check and focused on returning to it, which he was able to do staying out a lap later in the final round of stops.

The biggest question over Kirkwood still remains how he manages his performances when he’s stuck back in the pack.

He drew plenty of criticism last year for his seven retirements while driving for AJ Foyt, many of them self-induced crashes – and had a tough start to his 2023 at Andretti Autosport with another spate of incidents over the first two races, some admittedly not his fault.

It was interesting Michael Andretti was asked about how he rates Kirkwood compared to team-mate Colton Herta at this stage of his career, as while they haven’t had all the same problems in IndyCar, both fundamentally have lacked consistency at times so far.

“I think they’re very, very similar,” said Andretti. “They’re both very, very good. I think both are going to win a lot of races from now on.

“I compare them very equally.”

Before Texas and Long Beach this month, Herta’s last consecutive run of even two top-seven finishes came in 2021, so he’s had his own issues with being consistent and staying out of harm’s way.

But he’s still considered one of the best drivers in the series, and Kirkwood will be going the same way if he can continue to qualify up front because when he’s up there, he’s answered the question as to whether he can handle the pressure and deliver in that scenario.

“I think all the real ones know that I was able to do it,” said Kirkwood, asked by The Race if it was important to him to answer his critics with this result.

2023 Long Beach Grand Prix

“My team definitely believed in me. That’s the most important thing. Hopefully this is just the first of many. This is just the beginning.

“We’re early in the championship, so this kind of gets us some points on the board. The goal is the championship. Obviously the 500 and everything between and after.

“But it is nice to get that first win, quiet some people up that maybe talked bad about me last year.”

Those that have watched Kirkwood come up through the feeder series might almost be offended by the mere suggestion that he didn’t have what it takes to win in the circumstances of Long Beach, where he controlled portions of the race having started on pole.

So the breakthrough tag doesn’t necessarily work here, as it’s what we should all expect of the talent Kirkwood is. Expecting anything less would be underrating his ability.

The bigger question is how he channels this victory, and how he performs on the days he does end up 15th in the pack.

As we saw with Pato O’Ward, who entered the Long Beach race leading the championship and was involved in two major incidents including one poor move at Turn 8 in the pack, it’s a lesson some still have to learn and remind themselves of on a regular basis.

Winning may be the easier, proven part for Kirkwood. What comes next will define whether he’s an occasional IndyCar race winner or the title-winning force many expect him to become.

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